For someone who wanted to design cars, not wheelchairs, Doug Garven’s experiences have been with some of the biggest names and companies in this business. It’s made him a bit of a legend himself - not that he would admit it. Doug is grateful for the opportunities and travel he’s enjoyed throughout his career. Now, with over 30 years of experience both designing and using manual wheelchairs, his latest creation, is the culmination of everything he has learned and wanted to do with a chair.
Tell us about your childhood.
I had a very a dynamic living situation as a child. My family had sailboats on Lake Erie since I was two and when I was 13, my parents decided to sell everything and we moved onto the sailboat and we sailed it down to the Virgin Islands. We lived on the boat down there for almost four years just travelling around the Caribbean. I was homeschooled with all my work sent through the mail and back to a post office box on St. Thomas that we would check on once a month. Talk about remote learning!
I could do a day’s worth of schoolwork in about 2.5 hours. Then I was free to go windsurfing the rest of the day. One day, I was giving surfing pointers to Bob Woodward, the famous editor of the Washington Post from the Watergate scandal, but I didn’t know who he was until later.
I had long, shaggy hair, was tanned from the sun, and looked like a surfer dude when we came back to Ohio to finish my last two years of high school. Regular school was incredibly easy after having done correspondence classes.
What did you want to do for a career?
My dad’s an aeronautical engineer, and my mom’s an artist. I’ve always been good with math, but I also had this artistic side. My dad thought I would enjoy industrial design as a career choice because it incorporates both. But I wanted to be a mechanical engineer and did that for my first two years of college and hated it! So, I switched majors and school – I went to Kent State for industrial design for four years. Dad was right!
Your accident happened in your junior year of college, how did that change your path?
I was driving with three other guys in the car and none of us were wearing seatbelts. It was winter of ‘89 in Ohio and we went off the road. The front passenger and I got tossed from the car and tumbled down an embankment. I woke up in the ICU and couldn’t get up, but I couldn’t figure out why. I am a T6 para. Thankfully, at the time, I had no understanding of anatomy or how that injury level impacts your functionality. But I remember being in the rehab hospital and seeing two kids younger than me who are both quads, and was like, wow, that is a whole other level.
I was supposed to be at the rehab hospital for eight weeks, but I was pretty vocal about getting out. After four weeks, I told them anything from here on I can learn at home. They agreed and saw I didn’t need to be there any longer.
I’m lucky my injury happened after the rigid chair revolution, so I was not put into a folder. I definitely did everything I could to make sure I had as much of my old life as possible. I could be independent and drive. I never felt sorry for myself. The key is to focus not on what you can’t do, but all the things that you still can. The accident was in November, and I only missed that spring semester of school. I took some classes in the summer and started again in the fall.
Tell us about your 30 years of designing wheelchairs.
I was not looking to get into the wheelchair industry. I love cars and still do. I wanted to be a car designer but didn’t know you needed to go to specialized schools for it.
Having been a surfer kid, I wanted to move somewhere warm and looked for jobs in California. I ended up getting hired by Everest and Jennings – the first big commercial wheelchair company at the time. They truly revolutionized wheelchairs from being the big wicker style to the folding chair which offered independence and flexibility for people to get out of the hospital and do things on their own. I flew out for the interview and met with their VP who told me there were moving to Missouri, so I relocated there. After a year, they bought a small independent company that was doing stuff in Santa Cruz, CA called Medical Composites Technology. Their head of R&D interviewed people from E&J and I was one of the few people they wanted to bring out, so I ended up in California after all! I stayed for four years (until 1997) and was almost ready to get out of the industry and try something else.
But first I met with the head of Sunrise Medical R&D, Wayne Kanishka, who’s an industry legend and one of the founders of Sunrise. They also had Murray Slaughterman, and the three of us started up a new division called Advanced Development where we were doing forward-thinking, futuristic things in a new office space in Colorado. If the president liked it, then it would become a real project and get developed. But a lot of these good ideas weren’t getting support, so we thought we would start our own company. We all left, but Wayne passed away and the dream fell through. After that, I did some independent work, went back to E&J, and then went to work for Kuschall in their Switzerland office for a two-year contract in 2006.
After 2007, I was working for a little startup in power assist devices with the motor in the wheel called NEXT Mobility which was an evolution of the old Johnson & Johnson company, Delta Glide. TiLite was next and I moved out to Washington and started in January 2009. It was growing by leaps and bounds and was a good group. There were other chair users like me working at Ti, and I took over all the design work in 2011. Most of the chairs in the current lineup are my creations. Permobil acquired TiLite in 2014 because we were their sister equivalent as the preeminent manual wheelchair company and matched their standards when it comes to quality.
How did the TiLite CR1 come to be?
I’ve been designing chairs since 1992 and over the years and projects you come up with ideas that can’t be used due to cost or not the right application. This project was the opportunity of a lifetime where all of those constraints were removed and I was finally able to purge my brain of all these ideas I’ve been waiting and wanting to do!
Everything from tube shape, caster bearings, and most importantly, frame design, ideas that were waiting for the opportunity to do something cool. I just needed the right material. I’ve seen other carbon fiber chairs out there and it’s a missed opportunity to do something different – they are simply matching the tube shape of their existing chairs with maybe a little bit of shape variation through the knee section. Carbon fiber can be any shape you want, and lets you take advantage of the weight and performance it offers. I see more and more components switching to carbon fiber because it lets you take the weight out of the chairs without sacrificing strength.
I am so excited to see the TiLite CR1 launch!
Note: we will be writing separate blogs to go into more detail about this new chair and you can learn more here.
Who are you outside of work?
I love sports cars – both watching them race and driving them. And I love sailing and being near the beach.
Thanks to work, I also met my wife Tricia at ISS in Orlando in 2009. We had mutual industry friends and Tricia came up to me and we started hanging out. At the time, she was living in Texas working for ROHO, and I was in Washington working at the TiLite. She joined me in Washington in 2010 and we bought a house and got married. She was the clinical education manager for ROHO, and when they were acquired by Permobil in 2015, they had an opening for education and wanted her. It was a 2-for-1 deal since the chair design work I was doing could be done from anywhere, so we both moved to Nashville in 2016.
With all the places I’ve lived and travel, we like to go somewhere new every time we vacation. We try to do a big trip each year and find somewhere to chill and it has to be near the water or the mountains!
Rapid Fire Questions:
What’s your favorite season and why?
Summer for the warm weather.
If you could have dinner with one person, dead or alive, who would it be?
Sebastian Vettel, the retired Formula One world champion. I share his passion for cars!
What is your favorite movie of all time?
Jaws. As a surfer, it makes you determined not to fall in.
Coolest place you’ve ever travelled?
New Zealand, spent two weeks there and the landscape is amazing!
Marketing Communications Manager
Sheri-Lynne is a communication professional with over 20 years of experience in writing, editing, marketing, and graphic design. She studied Journalism and Corporate Communications and is fondly referred to as Eagle Eyes for her keen proofreading skills. Sheri-Lynne was introduced to the complex rehab industry when she joined Permobil in 2017.