Driving is easy. Driving with wheelchair is not.
Wheelchairs are wonderful beasts, enabling you to get from Point A to Point B without asking to be carried. “Whoever said ‘confined to a wheelchair’ was an idiot,” says a paraplegic friend scornfully, “My wheelchair is my legs, only round. It doesn’t confine me; it frees me.”
Of course, he has the OTHER kind of wheelchair, the permanent kind. My wheelchair is what’s affectionately known in the trade as a “hospital wheelchair.” It’s designed to be pushed by someone else–the handles in back are a dead giveaway–and mostly for people who will be exiting the chair shortly, one way or another.
On Friday night, Sept. 16, 2016, I fractured my left femur just above Elmo, my replacement knee. I lived in a wheelchair, facing hip-high amputation of my left leg, for about two years while I fought health care bureaucracy, cost-conscious HMOs, and myself to figure out a way to walk again. (Spoiler alert: Elmo won!)
I documented my adventures in remobilization in this blog. They’re awfully self-indulgent, occasionally icky, and probably only of interest to me, but on the off-chance that they help someone else with a catastrophic injury, I’m keeping them together here. If you don’t want to read them, that’s OK; I still love you. If you do, you might want to start from the beginning, on the archive page that lists all posts.
It’s not working for me; I cannot, by myself, load the damn hospital wheelchair into the bloody car. Or out of it.
Wouldn’t be a problem, I suppose, except that patience is a limited virtue. The world is immensely sympathetic to catastrophic injury…for the first three months. “Take all the time you need. Focus on healing. Don’t you worry about coming into work, you can work from home and just concentrate on healing that leg!”
After eight months, though, patience is running out. I’ve been working–from Mom’s house–all this time but “Say, Cynthia? Any idea when you’ll be coming back into the office full-time?”
When The Leg shows signs of bone growth, The Doc says. No idea when that will happen.
“Well, yes, but… How about you come in once a week for a couple of weeks, then twice a week, then three times…and by July 10, you’re in the office full-time, five days per week?”
Uhm…boss? I’d have to hire a car to drive me at maybe $125/round trip…$2,500/month…*
“Cynthia, how you get to work is YOUR business, not the company’s,” she said gently, “Let’s plan on having you full-time onsite, in the office, by July 10. OK?”
I love my job. I love my team. I enjoy the work (well, mostly), and it really is a great company. Nor do I relish job-hunting from a wheelchair. I suppose I could look into permanent disability status but, were I eligible, I still wouldn’t be interested.
Alright, then. I’ve gotta start driving myself–and my wheelchair–to work. How? Good question.
Option 1: Leave a second wheelchair at work. In fact, this is how I’m doing it at home. I’ve purchased the cheapest transport chairs and walkers I can stand to use for each floor of the house. I position them by the stairs, and then all I have to drag up and down is me.
The problem with a second wheelchair in the office, though, is that it’s IN the office while my car is in the parking lot. I’d need a way to move from car to third-floor office. I’m getting pretty good with the walker, but even the closest handicapped parking space (usually occupied by the other disabled user in the building) is at least 200 feet of variable inclines.
This whole 30% weight-bearing thing is still experimental. Until The Doc certifies that I’m not irreversibly damaging things, I’ve been very conservative about where I walk–inside, on flat ground–and stay within shouting distance of help. A rainy/icy day in a deserted parking lot? Uhm…no.
Option 2: Get strong. My wheelchair weighs about 45 pounds and accordion-folds to a thinner but still hefty profile–it takes some oomph to get it off the ground. Now, I’m getting stronger every day–those tumor-like things on my shoulders are apparently burgeoning deltoid muscles–but likely I’m a few months away from lifting that chair into the trunk while balancing on unsteady pins.
Even the able-bodied who load my chair for me now have a bit of a time with it. My hybrid Camry has less trunk space than most, so it’s even more of a challenge. Stick the wheelchair in the back seat? Naaah; I’d need a shoehorn and a lot of luck.
Option 3: Install a wheelchair rack. “How about using a carrier, like a bike rack, on the trunk of your car?” my friends suggested. WOW! Great idea!
I hit the web and found the Model 001 from Wheelchaircarriers.com. It promised to be easy-loading–just roll the wheelchair a few feet onto a little ramp, lift it up to secure it, and start driving. You fold it away when not in use, they said. It needed an ordinary trailer hitch and was compatible with Camry Hybrids.
I immediately placed my order and scheduled time with the local dealer–UHaul–to install it. When finished, the installer gave me a brief tutorial on using my new rack. His first instruction: “Start by kneeling on the ground.”
Uhm…no. Did you happen to notice I AM IN A WHEELCHAIR With a BROKEN LEG?
“You’re right,” said the installer, scratching his head, “I don’t know why that company tells people they can use this thing from a wheelchair, it’s impossible. It’s kinda false advertising.”
Ya think? $800 worth of false advertising, once you count installation and trailer hitch.
Kneeling was out, and we quickly discovered I also couldn’t manage step two: Balance the wheelchair on the wobbly frame while simultaneously threading a 3-foot piece of steel square stock past the wheelchair, around the frame, and into a little hole. “This really isn’t a one-man job for ME,” the guy confessed.
This I knew, since I had to hold the rack in place for him while he worked.
Even if I could manage using that rack, it had an even bigger problem: Camrys simply aren’t made for trailer hitches. By the time the installer added all the necessary trailer hitch extensions and accoutrements, the HITCH was close to three feet long, before we ever got to the “foldaway” rack. And “foldaway” was mostly rhetorical; the car+hitch+rack combination wouldn’t fit into my garage, so I’d have to disassemble it every night.
Worse, I have a very steep driveway and this carrier sat all of four inches off the ground. No way would it survive the journey; I’d be impaling the roadbed each time I backed out. Speedbumps? Naaah.
“Take it off, all of it,” I said dully. There are no refunds on installations or trailer hitches, I learned; I’m hoping to get my money back on the rack.
Option 4: Buy a new car, modified to hold wheelchairs. Lots of people do this, with lifts and ramps and minivans that lower themselves to the ground. They replace the driver’s seat with a hole for a wheelchair. Of course, you could buy a nice Ferrari with what these things cost.
I investigated buying a used minivan or jeep and installing the cheapest hoist I could find; about $4,500 plus the cost of the car…and at that point my Facebook friends came to the rescue.
“Cynthia. Watch this.”
Whoa. Wow. No equipment? Hoooooooly cow. Color me gobsmacked.
That video transformed my entire outlook on this mobility stuff. I watched a more; paraplegics, tetraplegics, quadriplegics blithely going where I never thought anyone could go in a wheelchair: Up and down stairs, getting in and out of cars, bunny-hopping curbs, popping wheelies, climbing grassy slopes.
These people aren’t 30% weight-bearing, like me.
The difference (besides attitude) was mostly the wheelchair: Zen-minimal instruments that topped out at 20-25 pounds, less than half the weight of mine. Different tires. Different fit. Axles aligned with shoulders to facilitate great performance.
Option 5: Wake up! The world isn’t going to make itself over to be more accessible for me. I must make MYSELF over for the world. New mobility skills. New attitude.
New wheelchair. Specifications? Only three, in this order:
- It must be easier to self-propel than my current model
- I MUST be able to load it into my current car, by myself, in 15 minutes or less
- It must be at least as comfortable as my current chair (that one wouldn’t be hard)
I want to TOSS that baby into the car. And pop wheelies, so I can easily go over thresholds and low curbs. Never, ever again do I want to wind up in the terrified, busted-leg equivalent of the Russian trepak after a threshold dumps me out of my chair.
I hit Google, found five or six manufacturers of these things. Saw the price (eeeeeek), but still ‘way cheaper than buying a new car and outfitting it to hold a wheelchair, or paying for a few months of Lyft. They come in fancy colors and patterns. You can have a mobile phone pocket sewn in front, under the seat.
So…today I visited Eric, a wheelchair-fitting therapist, to help me pick out something that will get me driving and moving around town. I don’t know if I’ll need it a month or a lifetime–I’m hoping these things have good resale value–but while I need it, I’m damn well gonna GO places.
So, wish me luck, and I’ll finish this later…it’s getting long.
*I use Lyft, which I love and which is substantially cheaper than a wheelchair transport at around $300/trip. Still, it’s pricey.