I’ve been extremely fortunate that, until a few weeks ago, I have never broken a bone or had a physical disability that made the. use of a wheelchair necessary.
I’ve sprained my ankle and pulled a hamstring in the past. These were minor inconveniences as I still got around pretty good and I was back to my usual Energizer Bunny status fairly quickly. I’m also deaf in my left ear, but this doesn’t hamper my mobility. (Yes, it’s a “disability,” but it’s one that I can control with my BAHA (bone activated hearing aid) or ear plugs, for the most part. Since living with the slow decline in hearing over 10 years, I’ve learned to deal with it quite well and find it more annoying than disabling.)
Being dependent on a wheelchair when I’m not at home on the boat has been an eye-opening experience. I’d like to share a few observations and suggestions from a temporarily disabled point of view:
- I am very self-conscious when in public. Upon arriving at a restaurant, for instance, people turn to stare. I can understand this is just curiosity, but it makes me feel as if I am on display. Hubby often has to weave between tables, get me settled and then find a place to put the wheelchair. (And God forbid that I should need to use the restroom before the meal is over; that in itself is a royal pain and I’ve learned to “go before I go” anywhere.) Normally, I’m very confident, but this experience has shaken my ego. When you see someone in a wheelchair, don’t just look them over or through them and turn away; offer a smile and a nod to make them feel seen. We all like to feel acknowledged and welcome.
- Access is the biggest obstacle and surprisingly very poor. Doors are tough to navigate through. Finding a ramp instead of stairs is challenging, and some ramps are extremely hard on my hubby to push/pull me up/down (especially boat ramps that become very steep with low tides). Even when a venue says it is “handicap accessible,” it may not be. Surfaces such as carpet and grass are extremely difficult for most regular-use wheelchairs. Ask if you can lend a hand when you see a person in a wheelchair and/or the caretaker struggling; hold the door for them, offer to carry a package or bag, or, if assistance is declined, show support with a “great job” comment.
- We move slow to avoid bumps that could pitch me forward (there have been many of these frightening moments), and are constantly evaluating what’s ahead, whether it’s crossing a street, or moving through a grocery store. Have patience. Offer to hand something from a shelf, step aside so the chair can be maneuvered closer to a display and don’t hover next to or behind the chair. Your annoyance is felt and it makes me clumsy and anxious. I’d love to move quicker and I’m not trying to keep you from your own task on purpose.
A few closing personal observations …
- It’s very humbling. Being so dependent on others is not enjoyable. Sometimes my hubby doesn’t move as quickly as I’d like, makes my morning cuppa too hot, or puts my chair in a position that I wouldn’t choose. I have to remember that he’s doing his best and not be snappy as he can’t read my mind. This is no picnic for him, either. I try to show my gratitude, but it’s impossible to truly express how much I treasure his loving care.
- Even everyday, small tasks take a long time. And preparation. When I move from one room to another, use the head, get in or out of bed, change clothes, etc., I have to think about balance, handholds, and what I need to accomplish the task. Once I’m settled, it’s not easy to get back up if I forgot something!
- All of this is exhausting on mental and emotional levels as well as the obvious physical discomfort. My body is using energy to heal, I’m stressed about being a burden and wanting to be the incredible First Mate that I usually am. It’s not my favorite time in my life, but it is teaching me many lessons. I’m grateful for my generally good health and have an extreme amount of empathy for those that live with permanent disabilities.
If you want to hear the whole story of my injury, read on:
We had left San Francisco with our final destination being San Diego, where we would meet up with the Baja Ha-Ha Fleet and journey to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, on our 42 ft sailboat with the other 130+ boats. The trip down the coast had been fairly uneventful, with no wind and lots of motoring from port to port.
On a beautiful day in Two Harbors, Catalina, we went ashore. It was mid-day, we’d just finished lunch, and there were no copious amounts of alcohol involved. I wasn’t dancing on the bar or doing swan dives off the dock. I simply slipped on the second to bottom step as I descended the stairs from the restroom and came down jarringly hard on my left ankle, rolling it violently in towards my right side. The pain that I had was like nothing before in my life, including childbirth. Just hobbling back to our table on the restaurant patio had me in tears.
Luckily, the Los Angeles County Lifeguard boat was moored at the harbormaster’s dock and the crew happened to be walking by. Hubby flagged them down and they evaluated my injury, splinted my leg and took my vitals. The recommendation was to get to an xray as soon as possible and my options were to be taken by their boat or our own to Avalon, which is several hours away, or to head back to the mainland and find a Kaiser (our insurance carrier). They put me on a luggage cart (meant for visitors coming via ferry to stay at the hotels), then did a fireman-carry to get me on their boat to transport me to our boat, since getting in and out of our dinghy wasn’t an option.
With my ankle stabilized, we decided to motor to Dana Point, where we were able to secure a slip for a quick overnight, then on to San Diego where we knew we’d easily find care. We had to do day trips as navigating at night in an unknown port is never a good idea, even with all crew fully able-bodied. At this point, I could put zero weight on the foot without excruciating pain. I hopped or crawled through the boat, grateful for the many handholds. Hubby single-handed us off the mooring balls, into and out of the Dana Point berth, and then finally to our guest slip at Southwestern Yacht Club. There, the staff lent us a wheelchair and I was off to a San Diego Kaiser Urgent Care via the kind shuttle of our cousins, who live in SoCal.
I remember when xrays took a day or more to get back to the doctor, but with modern technology, it was a mere 10 minutes before I was seen by an orthopedist. I had two spiral fractures that were just a hair away from needing surgery. I had to stay completely off the foot until the bones knit or metal pins would be required. I was armed with a soft, removable “cast” for sleeping, a boot for walking when the pain subsided, crutches and a bottle of 600 mg Motrin and the admonishment to be patient and let my body heal.
Our plans to leave for Mexico were up in the air. We considered going anyway, but a week after the incident and a follow-up with an orthopedist had us deciding not to take part in the annual Baha Ha-Ha Rally. This was part of our “Dream” and a heart-breaking decision, but the right one. We’ll still go, a few weeks later than planned and on our own schedule when I’m no longer at risk of doing further damage to my ankle.
At this writing, I’m three weeks out from the accident. I’m cleared to leave for Mexico after 4 weeks but will need to stay in the boot for a total of 6 weeks. I’m learning to get around, to be grateful for assistance, and to find ways to safely do more things for myself. It’s a humbling experience and I see disabled people in a much different light.
I’ll heal with time and in the future will purposely exercise compassion and patience with those that are physically challenged, whether temporarily or permanently. I hope you will, too.