A Life-Changing Injury—and a New Calling

updated 04/27/2009 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/27/2009 AT 01:00 AM EDT

David Heim, 47
Marlborough, Mass.

After a night out drinking, David Heim didn't think twice about getting in his car on Sept. 18, 1995. He paid a devastating price: Crashing into a tree, he suffered a spinal cord injury that, doctors said, meant paralysis from the neck down. "I felt like dying," he says. "And I did it to myself."

Defying the odds, he regained partial movement in his upper body, hands and arms. A power wheelchair helped him get around and go out with pals. Though insurance paid for his chair, David realized many people could never begin to afford a good power chair, which starts at $8,000. So in 2000 the former machine-shop manager founded the Wheelchair Recycler (www.wheelchairrecycler.org).

Today, David and son Joseph, 20, have repaired or rebuilt 700 wheelchairs that they've given away or sold for a few hundred dollars to low-income and underinsured users. In 2004, Christopher Reeve's widow, Dana, gave David one of the late actor's power chairs; with her blessing, he used the parts to rebuild six others. Peter Wilderotter, head of the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, says "David is a modern-day Superman." No one agrees more than Hayley Sweeney, 15, a Vermont farm girl with spina bifida, whose Heim-built power chairs with headlights allow her to visit her grandmother at night. "David," she says, "changed my life."

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