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Charles Monson works the system to help fellow quadriplegics get the high-tech wheelchairs they need

Casey's application was denied. Instead, CalOptima offered a manual wheelchair with a manual tilt-and-recline system, documents show.

Casey has permanently fisted hands and can barely lift his arms to keep himself upright, yet he was denied a power wheelchair because "medical necessity for a power wheelchair has not been established," according to a December 2006 CalOptima document obtained by the Weekly. CalOptima documents further explain that the agency's decision took into account Casey's residing in a nursing home, where he had 24-hour access to caregivers—the same caregivers who sometimes left him for eight hours without adjusting his posture.

Monson, whose request for his own ultralight wheelchair was initially rejected by the agency, says CalOptima reflexively and systematically denies member requests for specialized wheelchairs. But, Monson and others say, the lack of the correct equipment is tantamount to a life sentence.

Monson with Robert Casey:  CalOptima had denied Casey's requests for a replacement wheelchair. Photo by John Gilhooley.
Monson with Robert Casey: CalOptima had denied Casey's requests for a replacement wheelchair. Photo by John Gilhooley.

The agency is both Monson's benefactor and his nemesis. He is a member of CalOptima. But after fighting the agency in court for his own wheelchair—and winning—he says, he realized the law favors him and the untold numbers of other county residents whom CalOptima denies special equipment.

In a modest one-story home on an almost invisible Orange cul-de-sac, Larry greets visitors by jumping up on them. Monson is attempting to train Larry to be a service animal. He still needs some work.

Monson awkwardly wraps his motorcycle-gloved right hand around a water bottle. He bends back his wrist, causing his fingers to contract and hold the bottle. He shows it to Larry; the dog whimpers and backs off. "If he does that again, just show him the bottle—he knows."

A framed 1998 Orange County Register article hangs near his kitchen. A large picture of Monson giddily smiling in midair during a skydiving expedition dominates the page. Pictures taped on Monson's office wall show smiling, waving children sitting in wheelchairs. Monson runs a charity called Wheels of Mercy that collects donated wheelchairs, refurbishes them and gives them to disabled people in poor countries. This year, he hopes to send 100 wheelchairs to homes in Mexico.

Throughout his life, Monson has broken nearly everything that breaks in the human body. He lives with the misery of constant pain and the awareness that he should be dead. Living on borrowed time pushes him to find meaning in his life, he says.

In 1979, he was a lanky 6-foot-2 16-year-old. He graduated high school early and was looking forward to a summer of surfing and meeting girls. On a hot day in June, he and a friend went swimming in the ocean near 56th Street in Newport Beach.

"We were supposed to meet some girls," he begins. "The girls were late, and it was hot, so we headed for the water. We ran across the sand and down the shore and out about probably hip-deep. I leapt forward and dove under a wave. The spot I leapt from was deeper than the spot I hit. The weight of my body and the force of the forward dive buckled my arms, and my head hit, in essence, a sandbar.

"I was instantly paralyzed, facedown in the water. I couldn't move anything but my mouth and my eyes."

A friend fished him out of the ocean. He was awake when he was rushed to Hoag Hospital.

"The very first thing they did there is put a device called 'tongs' on me. They call them tongs because they look remarkably like the ice tongs of the old days that they would use to carry big blocks of ice. It was basically a big pincer that went into my skull on either side that they then put a cord and weight to so that I had traction, so they could relieve the pressure on the spine from the break.

"Three days after that, they fit me with what they call a halo, which is a circular piece of metal that goes around the skull that has screws going in at four points [and connecting] to a chest brace," he says. "The halo was awful because they can't give you any anesthesia when they screw the screws in. They're like self-tapping screws. They put this sharp screw against your skin that they have sterilized, and they just screw it in until it's in the skull. You hear it snapping and popping."

Three days before Monson's trip to see Casey at Rancho Los Amigos, he's wheeling through French Park Care Center, a nursing home in Santa Ana, to talk to another client, Richard Takacs.

"This is one of the better nursing homes," he says. "You can tell by the smell."

"Can I help you?" asks a woman wearing pink scrubs. Her posture, demeanor and name badge signify that she is in charge here.

"Yes, I was just wondering if Richard Takacs is in his room."

"I don't know," she says. "Go knock on the door."

Takacs, 62, lies in bed, watching an Angels game at high volume. He mutes the television with the remote control.

Next to Takacs' bed sits a broken power wheelchair.

According to documents obtained by the Weekly, Takacs has recurring pressure sores on his buttocks and legs, which are continually cycling between open wounds and almost healing.

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