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WILMINGTON, Ohio -- The sharply rising number of obese Americans is leading medical-equipment manufacturers and ambulance crews to supersize their stretchers.
Manufacturers are adding thicker aluminum frames, bulkier connectors and extra spine supports to create stretchers with a capacity of 650 pounds, instead of the standard 350 to 500. Ambulance crews are switching to the heavy-duty models to avoid injuries to rescue workers and patients alike.
"If the stretchers aren't big enough, a person may fall off. It's a disaster. Or if the stretcher collapses, it can lead to injury for them or the attendant," said Dr. Richard Atkinson, president of the American Obesity Association.
No doctors or paramedics interviewed for this story could actually recall any cases of overweight people breaking a stretcher or falling off one. But they know of paramedics who have gotten hurt lifting heavy patients.
Josh Weiss, a spokesman for Southwest Ambulance, which serves the Phoenix and Tucson, Ariz., areas, said the company's paramedics used to employ a tarp to carry patients too big for a standard stretcher.
"You'd have to have five to 10 different firefighters lift it up. It was unsafe for our units. There would be many physical problems for our crews," he said. "Back injuries would often occur."
Up to 650 pounds
Southwest, which operates 225 ambulances and answers more than 200,000 calls a year, recently replaced its stretchers with those that can handle up to 650 pounds. It has also created a special unit with wider ambulances that have special hydraulic lifts and shock absorbers to carry the obese.
A RAND Corp. study released this week found that the number of extremely obese American adults -- those who are at least 100 pounds overweight -- has quadrupled since the 1980s to about 4 million. That works out to about 1 in every 50 adults.
Paramedics are noticing the difference.
"It just seems over the past couple of years we're hearing more often about crews asking for extra personnel to come lift or special equipment to come lift," said Craig Gravitz, chief paramedic for Denver Health Medical Center in Colorado, which replaced some of its stretchers with the 650-pound model.
Ferno-Washington Inc. of Wilmington added an emergency stretcher with a 650-pound weight capacity to its product line in 2002.
Sales of the reinforced models have almost doubled those of their predecessors, which could hold 500 pounds or less, said president Joe Bourgraf. The heavy-duty model typically sells for $3,000, or about $500 more. It is also available with attachments that can increase the stretcher's surface area.
Similarly, Stryker Corp. of Kalamazoo, Mich., started making a 650-pound capacity stretcher last year, and said it has become a top-seller.
"We live in a society where unfortunately people seem to be putting on weight, so it seems to be well-attuned to that market," said chief financial officer Dean Bergy.
Marc Schwartz, an emergency medical technician in New York City, said heavy-duty stretchers and other improvements in equipment -- such as ergonomically designed handles -- have helped reduce the risk of injury.
"If we had the right equipment, two people could handle the heavier people," he said.