Anchorage

Need a walker or wheelchair? This huge 'closet' of medical equipment in Anchorage has you covered.

With an injured foot in a medical boot, Beatrice "B." Klingman made her first visit this week to the medical equipment loan closet at the nonprofit Access Alaska, hunting for a walker.

Klingman used to work as a home health practitioner. She isn't used to being the person using the walker.

But soon, in the hallway of the loan closet, she was trying out one with rolling wheels and hand brakes. At the front desk, Frank Rion, a staff member and stroke survivor, talked to her about the equipment. Klingman's bouts with viral meningitis have left her with coordination problems.

She relished Rion's advice — she liked that no one was trying to sell her anything.

"I tried to use crutches and I can actually launch myself and face-plant," said Klingman, 62. "So I have to try it before I buy it or rent it."

For decades, Access Alaska, a nonprofit based in Anchorage's Fairview neighborhood that advocates statewide for people with disabilities, has offered donated medical equipment regardless of ability to pay. Spring is a big season for equipment donations, as people clean out garages, said executive director Doug White.

Calling the loan closet a "closet" defies the size of the operation, which has grown steadily for years. In the main building, crutches and walkers hang from walls and wheelchairs cluster in the middle of the room, not far from stacks of ice coolers for hips and knees. An industrial washer that looks like a giant stainless steel cube and is called the "Hubscrub" sanitizes non-motorized equipment.

A shed and an old fourplex next door house even more items, from hospital beds to disposable incontinence supplies and consumable feeding-tube fluids.

No appointments are needed. People like Klingman come for the equipment.

But they stay, sometimes more than an hour, sometimes in tears, for the conversation, because the people who work and volunteer can relate. That's part of the supportive model of Access Alaska, where more than half of the employees have disabilities.

Rion, at the front desk, keeps records and talks to people about coping and recovery. He lost use of much of his left side in the stroke.

The manager, Frank Box, 62, was a Prudhoe Bay welder and ironworker. He developed a brain tumor in 1998 and had two brain surgeries. A few years later, Box joined the Access Alaska brain injury peer support group, which he still facilitates. He started working at the loan closet in 2005 — he's good with his hands.

Dan Davis, 28, found out about Access Alaska from his church. He has a long scar on his left arm from a car crash more than a decade ago and spent two years on painkillers.

Then there's Lawrence Sarmiento, 69, who volunteers three times a week and helps cover the phone lines. Sarmiento, also a stroke survivor, borrowed a medical bed from the loan closet earlier this year, and was so impressed that he wanted to volunteer. He'd just moved to Alaska and was sleeping on the floor. The bed allowed him to sit up straight as he slept and prevent his congestion from suffocating him.

They work together to make the loan closet run smoothly, between the calls and drop-ins and drop-offs. It's often bustling — too busy to drink coffee some days, Sarmiento said.

On Wednesday, Beth Casanova, 60, brought in a boot, crutches and an ice cuff to donate. She was also returning a shower stool she'd received from the loan closet.

She got the donated items from the hospital after her foot surgery. Her insurance paid for it.

"Instead of (putting) them on Craigslist, I want to help people who cannot afford them," Casanova said.

Casanova's friend told her about the loan closet. While hospitals are the biggest referral to the loan closet, word-of-mouth is also common, Davis said.

"We're the best-kept secret that we don't like being," Davis said.

The loan closet started humbly, jammed into a corner at the nonprofit's old building on Fireweed Lane. When Frank Box got there in 2005, he wanted to get equipment off the floor, so he built shelving brackets. It morphed into an entire department dedicated to lending medical equipment, with a large inventory.

In 2013, Access Alaska moved to a spacious new building on East 10th Avenue in Fairview, next to the Fairview Recreation Center. The extra space comes in handy, because Box hates throwing things away. There have been many times when an unusual piece of equipment came in that was hard to place.

"But then that one person comes along … and that piece of equipment perfectly suits their needs," Davis said. "And it's (worth) $1,500, so there's no way they could buy it."

One example: A kit to power a wheelchair with a hand crank. For seven years, Box hung onto it. It was too good to throw away, he said, even when he tripped over it from time to time.

A year and a half ago, the kit went to a woman in Wasilla, who had a congenital disability that shortened her legs. Now she goes on walks with her family, Box said.

Donations are rarely turned away, though the staff try to check that the item is in fact owned by the person donating it.

Christopher Petro can't wait to get back to his day job of driving a truck. He's 66 and got a hip replacement last year so he could keep working. He first hurt his hip after crashing a truck in the late 1980s and it's deteriorated ever since.

Petro gathered up the strength to walk from his apartment downtown to the Access Alaska loan closet. He was looking for something to make his walker move better.

Davis suggested a tennis ball with a flat surface on the bottom. Petro lit up. "Oh that would be wonderful! Yes, yes, absolutely." Davis went to retrieve it.

A tennis ball isn't a high-priced item, but on some days, a person might leave with $600 worth of equipment, Box said. The director, Doug White, said the organization estimates that it saves Medicaid insurance about $500,000 a year by recycling the supplies.

Next to the main building is a former fourplex with yellow paint and numbers still next to the doors. That's also used for storage. They call it "Medfraland," after the street it's on. They haven't changed it, to keep with the neighborhood's personality, Box said.

Box opened the door to the second unit from the end, called Unit 2. The joke: It stores incontinence supplies.

Sarmiento ran up to get their attention. Someone was returning a hospital bed at that moment.

Outside, Bea Adler was backing up her teal Plymouth Voyager van. Her husband shattered his spine in a fall last year and used the bed until his death in February.

"This is a lifesaver," Adler said. "It makes it possible for people to have what they need."

Adler said she'd known about the loan closet for years through her work with the Mat-Su Borough Department of Emergency Services.

Yet she'd never needed to use it until her husband fell. The bed was a bit glitchy; sometimes it wouldn't rise up all the way. Still, it made a big difference to have it, Adler said.

Devin Kelly

Devin Kelly was an ADN staff reporter.

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