Paralyzed New Kensington Navy veteran receives van from Virginia charity
Dan Hika, a Navy veteran paralyzed in a swimming pool accident seven years ago, feels free.
And he owes it to Frank Lasch and Azalea Charities, which raised enough money to buy Hika and his family a minivan that will allow him to get to and from places without having to get out of his wheelchair.
“I’m totally free,” Hika said Friday when the van was delivered. “Now, if I have to go to a doctor’s appointment, I’m not sitting, waiting on a ride to get home. I just love it. It’s amazing.”
Hika, 51, became paralyzed from the chest down when he dove into an above-ground swimming pool behind his family’s New Kensington home in 2012. He uses an electric wheelchair to get around.
Lasch is the founder and chairman of Azalea Charities, a Prince William County, Va.-based nonprofit that raises money to support wounded veterans and their families.
When Lasch heard the family needed help getting Hika to and from his medical appointments in Cleveland — as well as around in general — his charity started raising money to buy the van, which he presented to the Hikas on Friday.
“We hope it will make a difference,” Lasch said.
Before, when the family would go anywhere, they would have to physically pick up Hika from his wheelchair and put him in their cars. They don’t have to worry about that anymore.
“It’s hard picking me up and putting me in the car cause you’re lifting dead weight,” Hika said.
The van modifications were paid for by the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System. It’s outfitted with a ramp, a lowered floor and a wider door frame.
Hika can drive his wheelchair up into the backseat. The backseat is completely open and has plenty of room for him and his wheelchair. There is a bench farther back for additional passengers.
Both the front passenger and drivers seats are removable, meaning Hika can ride shotgun — or even drive in his wheelchair.
Hika could be driving again very soon.
His wife, Cheryl Hika, said the Louis Stokes Cleveland VA Medical Center will train her husband to use a special adapter that fits across a steering wheel. The adapter has a knob about the size of a golf ball to control the steering, acceleration and brakes.
Once Hika undergoes that training, he will be able to drive the van on his own.
“Hopefully, it will be a morale booster that he doesn’t have to rely on one of us,” said Cheryl Hika, 51. “It’s a hard life. I wouldn’t want it for anyone.”
This isn’t the first time Azalea Charities has helped the Hikas, who live in a two-story house on Freeport Road with their three children.
After the accident, the family turned their dining room into Dan Hika’s bedroom because he couldn’t get upstairs. But because the dining room and living room are connected, Hika had no privacy from the rest of the people in the house.
The charity last year converted the Hikas’ porch into a bedroom for him, complete with heating and air conditioning and a mounted television.
“We were able to bring a contractor in and create a bedroom for him by renovating his porch,” Lasch said. “We’re happy in this situation to be able to reach out to our veteran here in New Kensington.”
Dan and Cheryl were completely moved.
“I really appreciate it,” Dan Hika said, “from the bottom of my heart.”
Madasyn Czebiniak is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Madasyn at 724-226-4702, [email protected] or via Twitter .