Thursday, May 11, 2017

A Sailor's Thoughts on Airplanes, Wheelchairs and UBER

Elvis' tomb at Graceland
I've been doing a lot of reclining recently.  It's painful to sit and standing is fine for a half hour or so, but at some point I just have to lie down again, a pillow under my left leg.  I've got a laptop laying across my upper legs and I've got some good pain meds. Those two things combined are responsible for this bad poem.

So here I lie in Memphis,
Day after day on my bumpkiss.
Is it time well spent?
Well, if that's what he meant
When my doctor said
Be kind to that tush bone
Afore pain knocks you senseless.
May 8 Monday.  I talked to Carl this morning by phone, from the neurosurgeon's office in Memphis and I told him that I need back surgery.  "When can you get here?" Northern Star is sailing north today from Jacksonville, along the Georgia coastline and on toward Charleston. Carl is hopeful that the weather will hold and given the benefit of having three sailors onboard, that they may be able to keep going until they get to Oriental, NC where we will leave the boat for a couple of months. 

Northern Star going through a lock on ICW
So we have a plan now and it's one that makes sense to me.  When I saw the MRI of my L5/S1 disc draped over the top of the sacrum, reminding me of the way a dog's tongue hangs out of his mouth, I thought, how in the world is physical therapy going to make that blob go back where it belongs?  I've been warned about knife-happy surgeons with regard to back surgery, but at this point, the microdiskectomy seems the most reasonable thing to do.  As my doctor said this morning, "You're already 6 weeks into this. If it was going to get better on its' own, it would have started to improve a little by this time. Instead it's getting worse. You've had an epidural without improvement. You're in a lot of pain; too much so to do physical therapy. You've lost ankle reflexes and you've lost strength in your left leg.  It's time to do this."  And I said, "How soon?"

But here's what I want to talk about.  I had some "interesting" experiences while being dependent upon others for assistance over the past two weeks.  I was a rehab social worker for much of my career but have had no experience myself, of being a wheelchair user.  It was very educational.  My readers will not be surprised to learn that I have a few observations to make.  I think that in our country, we could do a better job when it comes to making our cities and our services more user friendly for folks using wheelchairs. So, anyway,  here goes.
Our new primary care clinic in Memhis
April 19 Wednesday morning. My first wheelchair experience occurred when Carl was with me.  We flew from Marsh Harbor to Miami.  My ESL (English as a Second Language) female attendant was there at the gate with my wheelchair and I could see immediately that it was going to be trouble.  The seat was so stretched out and loose that it laid right down on the bar beneath it.  I gingerly sat down and immediately got up again.  "I can't sit on that. There's something wrong with the seat. I'm sitting right on the bar."  "Oh, no is fine," she said. "They all like this." Oh great. The Miami airport is torturing all wheelchair users as a regular course of business. Well, my attendant had a schedule to keep and there was no use but to go along with the schedule.  I slouched way down so as to avoid sitting directly on the bar.  As we parted ways, I attempted one more time to explain that the chair really was in need of attention. "The chair needs repair.  It needs to have the seat repl......" She was gone before it was out of my mouth.


One of the dog parks at Shelby Farms, a 4,500 acre park in Memphis.
April 19 Wednesday night. My next flight was to Memphis that same evening and I was alone. DAN made the arrangements including wheelchair assistance. I took myself to the airport by UBER, laying across the backseat per my request. The driver kindly gave  me his hand to help pull me out when we got to the airport. The Drop Off at the Miami airport is 3 or 4 lanes of traffic wide. I needed to cross two busy lanes to get inside the terminal.  Thankfully there was a police woman standing near me when I exited the UBER vehicle.  I asked her how I could get a wheelchair, thinking she would alert someone to bring one out for me.  Instead, she pointed across the lanes to the entrance.  "You have to go in through those doors. They have wheelchairs in there."  Well, so much for help from our officer in blue.  I hoped she was watching me as I limped and dragged my heavy backpack, my CPAP case and a large travel "purse" across the lanes, dodging taxis and limousines.  In retrospect I really should have been more insistent and NOT budged from the spot with all that heavy stuff in tow.

One of the pandas at the Memphis Zoo
I entered the terminal. I had about an hour before my plane would be boarding. A roving airline helper came to my assistance and got my boarding pass for me.  I pointed out that a wheelchair had been requested and one bag needed to be checked.  She took my bag and told me to have a seat in the area where all the chairs had large wheelchair symbols on them.  She came back eventually.  "There's nobody working this area right now.  I think she went to dinner."  "Can you find a wheelchair for me?" I asked. See, I was thinking I could push myself.  Wrong. She twisted up her mouth, squinted and said tentatively, "I'll see what I can do." She was gone a long time.  In fact, I don't think she did come back. Meanwhile, an ESL airport worker came by driving one of those motorized carts and pulling a load of luggage carts.  "Can you help me get a wheelchair?"  I couldn't understand what he said exactly, but it was something like, "I only drive deess," and smiling, shook his head. at me.
The Big River Crossing, at Memphis, the longest pedestrian bridge crossing the Mississippi River.

A woman in some sort of airport uniform came by and I flagged her down. "Would you help me please.  I need to get a wheelchair so I can get to my gate."  She looked about, saw the empty podium nearby and said, "I don't work in this area.  I'll see what I can do."  She returned in just a few minutes, "The woman who works here is at supper.  She should be back soon."  She lingered, looking around us. We were at the end of the terminal.  Very little action was happening there. Finally, a man in a uniform (maybe a pilot, for all I know) came down the hall and she nabbed him.  "What do we do about getting this woman a wheelchair?" He turned on his heel, grabbed a folded wheelchair that was sitting across the way and brought it over to us, then continued on. The woman caught him again.  I could hear in her tone of voice she was thinkin' 'not so fast, Buster.'  Turns out she was not particularly happy to be saddled with me because it was not her job to push people in wheelchairs and the airport does not have job sharing. (ie. Okay, on Tuesdays I'll push passengers in wheelchairs but the rest of the week I get to fly the planes.)  They don't do that.  I got into the chair, waiting.  She returned and without saying a word, pushed me about 75 yards to a similar seating area with wheelchair symbols on all the chairs.  She said a few words to the young woman in charge of that seating area who had not abandoned her little clutch of wheelchair passengers by thoughtlessly going to dinner. Neither of these woman looked at me or said anything to me.  I was just parked there, helped out of the wheelchair and left to ponder my existence. Had being in a wheelchair rendered me invisible?


Mississippi at Memphis.  Memphis Pyramid on the horizon, now home to Bass Pro and boutique hotel.
Now, this was interesting.  I'd been there only a few minutes, when an elderly woman left her chair to come over to me.  She said, "Obviously you're in a lot of pain. I may have some pain medication that might help you.  Would you like something?"  I did not take her up on her offer, as I did have a little pain medication of my own, but I appreciated her asking.  She confirmed that I was not invisible.

There was just a half hour left now, until they would start boarding the plane to Memphis.  I looked across at the young woman at the podium. When I could catch her eye, I mouthed, "What's going on?"  She smiled and mouthed back what I think was, "Someone will be here soon." Sure enough, in another ten minutes or so,  a very frail looking woman was delivered to the seating area in a wheelchair.  Her ESL attendant helped her vacate the wheelchair and be seated.  The attendant then brought the wheelchair over to me. The young woman at the podium handed her my boarding pass, which had been taken from me earlier (!) by the first woman to give me a push in the chair.
One of several great museums in Memphis

And......... we were off.  Zoom--down the corridor. Right turn. TSA wanted me to walk, if possible, through the metal detector.  I obliged. Then zoom, down the next corridor, up an elevator, onto an elevated train car, then down an elevator.  As we were going, I wanted to report to her how difficult it had been to get a wheelchair.  I said, "Cuarenta minutos antes de recibo la silla." (40 minutes before I receive a chair.) She laughed and said, "Oh, no no no, ees fine."  Clearly my Spanish left much to be desired.  I tried again while meaningfully jabbing myself in the chest.  "Esperanzo cuarenta minutos para la silla." (I wait 40 minutes for a chair.)  This did the trick.  "Ay, no, Usted esperanza...lo siento." (Oh, no. You wait 40 minutes. I am sorry."  After a couple more straightaways, and turns, we were on the home stretch-- the corridor leading to my gate. There was nobody there! The plane had boarded. I was the last passenger to board the plane to Memphis.  First seat, first row, First Class.  The door was closed a few minutes later. Well, that was exciting. Not.
Beale Street
I was the first passenger to exit the plane in Memphis and there was my wheelchair waiting for me along with my wheelchair attendant.  The woman took her job very seriously.  She efficiently took me to the baggage claim area, all the while keeping a stream-of-consciousness monologue going.  It was rather nice actually.  At least I knew what she was thinking.  She grabbed my backpack for me and we headed outside.  I explained that I would be getting an UBER driver to take me to my destination.  She knew just where the UBER drivers picked up their passengers and picked her way across two busy lanes of airport traffic using all available curb cuts to make my ride as smooth as possible.  She turned one direction, and then reversed herself thinking she'd chosen the wrong way.  My UBER driver called me.  Where was I? he wanted to know. Hmph. Where are you? My attendant spotted the car first.  She made a dash toward him, no longer taking such care to avoid the bumps.  The UBER driver launched into what I thought was an ill-advised move--he backed up to get to us, perhaps a football field's length. There was much honking involved.


It was really rather sweet how the wheelchair attendant "reported off" to the UBER driver, the condition of her patient, er, passenger.  "She's in a lot of pain, so you want to drive carefully and help her with her luggage" which he was already doing.  As I said, a stream-of-consciousness monologue.  She wished me well and I thanked her for her attention. It's nice to see people take pride in their work. The UBER driver was careful and inquired about my comfort in the backseat.  His mama raised him right. When we pulled up to the house, he carried my luggage to the door and extended his entire arm for me to hang onto so that I could pull myself out from the backseat where I was sprawled.  What a gentle and kind man, I thought. 

Oriental, NC.  Known as North Carolina's Sailing Capital. A very cruiser friendly little town.

May 11 Thursday.  Carl called me this morning from Oriental, NC. Northern Star had already arrived after three days and nights on the Atlantic, going from Jacksonville, FL to Oriental, NC.  He is relaxing this evening and then making arrangements to rent a car.  One of the crew goes to the airport  on Saturday and Carl will drive the other crew member home to Washington D. C.  Then he will drive to our car (where it has been stored in Maryland over the winter) and then on to Memphis with Jax.  Arrival in Memphis, perhaps Sunday; more likely Monday. He'll be here for my surgery first thing Tuesday morning.

What a weird, weird winter and spring it has been for us. First the lightning. And now this. But you know, since arriving in Memphis, I have talked with a lot of people-- UBER drivers and nurses at the clinics, etc.  And every time I've chatted with someone and they find out that I live on a sailboat, they say, without fail, "You live on a sailboat?  How awesome is that!" Or words to that effect. And I smile and say, "Yup."

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