I wear a leg brace. I use a wheelchair, but can walk short distances with canes before fatiguing. I cannot stand without an assistive device. My face is normal and my speech clear. My upper body appears healthy with good arm strength and use of hands. My back aches, often throbbing and feeling like fire. It is difficult to bend over as the pain can be unbearable. I cannot lift heavy objects. I cannot sit or stand for prolonged periods without pain. To the outside world, I am a girl with a badly broken leg who uses a wheelchair to get around easier. To those that know me, I suffered a life changing illness when I was diagnosed and treated for a spinal cord tumor which left me with a devastating spinal cord injury and a paralyzed leg. I am handicapped.
I never truly think of myself as handicapped as I would like to think that I am independent with most things in my life, however there are occasions when I may need a hand, or a push, or a lift. I completed a triathlon with well bodied participants yet still did not feel handicapped. It wasn’t until February 23, 2015 that an experience with the well-known airline, USAir, that I felt handicapped to the core. This was a life changing day for me. It was a realization that there will be potential times that I will be completely powerless and at the mercy of others.
I arrived at the airport at 4:45PM for a 6:00pm flight from Raleigh to Philadelphia. My girlfriend temporarily parked at departures to drop me off and say goodbye. I had a carry-on bag and a bag containing my canes which I would need assistance with once my friend left, as I was in my personal wheelchair. I waited curbside as my friend went inside to request assistance. We waited approximately ten minutes and no one arrived. It was cold, the freezing winds blowing. With no choice, we left her car parked curbside and she assisted me inside with my belongings. We walked to the USAir ticket counter. We informed them that no one had come outside to help. The friendly clerk placed a call on her phone and stated someone should be right over. I said goodbye to my friend, sending her back to her car quickly so she would not get a ticket, as I was now confident that I was going to be helped.
I was given my boarding pass and my wheelchair was tagged by the same nice USAir agent. I glanced at the boarding pass, noticing that I was seated in the back of the plane. I asked if there were any open seats closer to the front and if so, could I be switched? She checked her computer and stated that the only seats close to the front were seats that required additional charges. She asked if I would like to pay this. I declined. I was then wheeled to a spot where I was to wait with my things for the escort that had yet to arrive. It was now 5:15. The nice ticket agent noticed me still waiting and came over saying, “Oh my god, the attendant didn’t come? Your flight is boarding in two minutes. I will call them again and I will call the boarding desk to let them know you are here. She then called the escort again who arrived within the next minute or so, pushing a wheelchair saying, “I have been looking all over for you and I had to find a chair.” Clearly she misunderstood the ticket agent who had stated that I was in my own wheelchair. The agent told her the plane was boarding.
We went through the TSA security checkpoint. My escort took my coat, my purse, my carry-on bag and my cane bag and began to put them on the security belt. I was then instructed to wheel to a different point for a pat down and chemical check. I lost sight of my assistant. Where were my things? I panicked a bit. I hoped the escort had stayed with them. Where did she go? I was examined and the escort rejoined me a few minutes later with my things, thankfully. I wished she had told me she was staying with my belongings and would return to me once they had been checked. This added anxiety I definitely did not need as I was aware that my flight was boarding.
We arrived at the appropriate gate and I was escorted to the counter where approximately half of the plane passengers were waiting to board. The airline agent at the desk instructed me to wheel to the front of the line. She handed me a boarding pass and told me to head down. My escort looked at me as if she had never gone past the entrance to the plane corridor. She shrugged her shoulders in uncertainty, and told me to go ahead and she took my things.
I had been a passenger on an airplane multiple times and have never been told to just go down the ramp. I was always escorted down the ramp, backward mind you, for safety reasons, as per the airline employees of the past. I stared down the long descending corridor noting the joints every so often and thought they were going to be a pain to go across. I felt the presence of passengers behind me. I pushed off, picking up speed, hitting all of the connecting joints, jolting my back each time, sending pain shooting in all directions. I tried to stop my wheels with my hands, but the speed was too great. I used my left leg to come to a stop to avoid crashing into the passengers waiting to board the plane at the door. I apologized to the man who was directly in front of me who I missed hitting by inches.
I looked to my right and a friendly baggage loader was standing there. “Hi Ma’am,” he said. “Would you mind showing me how to collapse your chair in case I cannot store it under the plane as is?” “Sure,” I said, noting the entire corridor was filled with a line of passengers waiting to board who would not be able to pass me. It takes time to explain and show him what to do with my chair. This is why I have always boarded early, so there was plenty of time to do this sort of thing. Only this time I couldn’t because of the delay in getting an assistant when I first arrived. I was quickly helped onto the plane by a nice stewardess and was told to leave my bag with my chair. I apprehensively left it in the corridor feeling as if I said anything, I would be further holding up the boarding process.
I made my way to the back of the crowded plane with my canes, difficult as the aisles are so small and the plane was already half full with persons and their belongings. I found my seat, and sat. Within 2 minutes, a man approached me and told me that I was in his seat. I checked my boarding pass, and asked to see his. They appeared to be duplicate seats. I got up, figuring that we would speak with a flight attendant and resolve the issue. The minute I exited the seat, the man with the same assignment sat in it. I was left standing in the aisle with my two canes as a line of traffic was coming toward me.
I stood for ten full minutes, crouched below the luggage compartments, my back aching horribly, my legs tired, and I felt as if people were staring at me the entire time. People could not pass me. I was trapped. I had nowhere to go. I walked a few seats back further to an open seat where I could stay out of the way as I attempted to get the attention of an attendant. This only lasted briefly, as the passenger who was assigned to the seat I was standing in arrived. It seemed like an eternity before the flight attendant in the rear of the plane caught my waving arms and made her way toward me. She asked what the problem was and I explained. She then said she would be right back, and there I continued to stand, most of the people were now seated and were staring at the activity surrounding me. Tears welled in my eyes. I wanted to sit. I wanted to disappear. I wanted everyone to stop staring.
The flight attendant returned, “Ma’am, this is your seat, sir, you need to go back up to the ticket counter”. Finally! The man got up and I was able to sit. I was relieved to sit, I reached for my phone to text my girlfriend who dropped me off and explain what had happened thus far, when another flight attendant returned. “Ma’am, they moved you up to the front of the plane to make it easier for you, this isn’t your seat after all. I asked her if I could stay as I was already situated. She said that I was in the computer with the closer seat assignment and that I needed to move. My mind spun. At what point was my seat changed and why wasn’t I or the plane attendants notified? This was crazy. I told the attendant I would need my canes to get to the front. I stood once again. There was the hum of the starting engines. The plane was ready for takeoff. The doors had been locked, everyone was seated and the baggage compartments were closed. Once she returned with my canes, I walked slowly and awkwardly, in pain and exhausted, to the front of the plane as I felt as if thousands of eyes were staring at the back of my head. I was shown to the new seat and the attendant took my canes and placed them in a cabinet up in front of the plane. The flight was uneventful and I was so happy to land in Philadelphia.
I usually wait until the majority of the passengers have left the plane as I am slower and take longer to get off, so I sat in my seat until mostly everyone existed the plane, but realized I did not have my canes and was unsure at to where they were or what cabinet they were in. One flight attendant had her back to me, she was speaking with the captain in the cockpit and I did not see the other. So I waited, and the last of the straggling passengers stepped off the plane. A crew of airline staff came on the plane to clean, and there I still sat, unable to move, unable to get off of the plane. I tried to get the attendants attention, but the plane was loud and she did not hear me. Finally the flight attendant that was in the back of the plane came walking down the aisle with her baggage ready to exit when she saw me sitting there. “Honey, you are still here? Are you ok?” Yes I was still there. No I was not ok. And where the hell were my canes. I explained that I needed my canes to ambulate off the plane. She headed up front to the other attendant and asked where my canes were. “Ohhhhh!!” she said, “I almost forgot”. Really? Almost? How about you did!! I now had my canes and was ready to exit the plane and she asked me if I had luggage I needed to get down. I stared at her blankly, “No”, I said, “I was told to leave it with my chair.” Did they give you a claim ticket she asks?” Umm, no. I got to my chair and the baggage person was informed that I should have a bag that was with it. “It’s right there; “he points. Thankfully he had brought it up with my chair. (Usually I am given a ticket for my bag and the bag is tagged with the chair so that neither are sent to baggage claim.)
Thankfully, there was a nice escort there to assist me up to the terminal. He placed my belongings in a wheelchair that he had brought because he was told that I needed one. I had my chair, so he walked beside me as I wheeled up the exit ramp. Normally, the ramp exits level with the airport terminal, however this exit emptied below the terminal level and there was a long steep ramp ahead of me. I got halfway up before I became very fatigued due to the steep incline. The escort did not offer to push me as he was pushing my things. Thankfully, the captain and a stewardess caught up to me and the flight attendant pushed me the remaining steep distance through the terminal, the nice man assisting me wheeled my belongings next to me. We stopped at a podium where there was a woman standing with a hand held radio. She motioned to the woman next to her to take over for the gentleman that was helping me. The new assistant grabbed ahold of the wheelchair and began to push. No “hello“, no “how are you”, nothing. I told her I was headed to baggage claim as I had no idea if she knew where I needed to go. She nodded. We arrived at the elevator that takes you to ground level, where the baggage claim was located and where passengers can be picked up outside. She had me wheel on first and then wheeled my belongings in behind me, cramping us in the confined space. We reached the ground and the elevator doors opened and I wheeled out. I stopped to wait for the attendant. She pushed her wheelchair out of the elevator and stood in the doorway mumbling incomprehensible words before stepping back into the elevator. With that, the doors shut and I could hear the elevator moving. I sat in disbelief. What just happened? What did she say? Did she say “desk”? I heard the elevator coming back down. Surely she would be on it. The doors opened and a woman stepped off with an infant in a stroller, no one else was behind them. I looked to the escalators; no assistant was seen there either.
I crumbled inside and sunk down in my chair, wishing I could run away, run as fast as I could away from this airport, from this awful experience. I could feel the tears welling in my eyes. No, I had to pull it together, I could do this. I removed the left footplate from my wheelchair and lowered my better leg to the ground and I used that leg to propel me forward. I grabbed onto the bar that was luckily on the airport wheelchair carrying my belongings and I began to push, one wheelchair in front of the other. Surely I could do this until I saw an airline or airport assistant. I turned the corner, scanning the entire baggage claim area for a worker. I saw one baggage worker loading bags on the turnstile from another belt. Surely that could not be the only worker down there. I looked around again, and I noticed he was now gone. Ahh! Out of the corner of my eye was a HELP phone, thank God. I maneuvered my self-made train in that direction, a line of chauffeurs holding their signs, were awaiting their passengers in front of me. A middle aged, dark haired man with a thick accent came toward me quickly, “you need help? You ok?” I wanted to scream “YES“, but declined as he was there doing a job and may have missed his passenger. “I am ok”, I said. I continued moving forward, noticing the puffs of smoke from the cars and vans idling outside in the freezing cold, and wondered when the heck I would make it out there. I reached the phone on the wall and picked up the receiver. “Hello? Hello?” I heard nothing. No dial tone, no recording, nothing. I hung up. I picked up the phone again. Nothing. I hung up, this time with force. I turned around looking at the busy claim area, passengers going in all directions. I felt as if I was watching a movie. As if everything was happening around me, but I was not a part of it.
I thought of my husband Steve, who would be outside any minute. I had no choice. I grabbed the bar of the wheelchair and continued propelling myself forward, out the exit doors, across the pedestrian walkway and onto the sidewalk where passengers were being picked up. My hands were frozen. My so called “better leg” was fatigued. My back was screaming at me. I tasted the salt of my tears as I felt the defeat. I was sitting in front of a handicapped sign where passengers could be picked up. I noticed the car idling in this spot, without a handicapped placard, without an approved plate. Figures. A classic ending to a disastrous trip. I saw our car in the distance. Steve pulled up and idled parallel to the car in the handicapped spot. “Hey Babe” he said, with that smile I had missed. I was safe. I cried uncontrollably. “What is wrong?” he said. “Why are you crying?” I collapsed into his arms. All I could muster was a weak “hi” and “let’s go home”.
We hit the highway and I began to retell the horrendous three hours of my life that had just occurred. He gently asked, “Why didn’t you complain? Did you freak out on someone?” How could I complain? I was deserted in baggage claim with an extra wheelchair containing my belongings, there was not one employee in sight to assist me, the HELP phone was dead and making my way back upstairs into the airport to find a counter was going to be next to impossible. “I’m so sorry babe,” Steve said. We pulled into the driveway. I was never so glad to be home.
I laid in bed that night, rehashing the chain of events from my trip. I kept coming back to the same thought. The ball was dropped. Not just a ball, multiple balls. Every incident, every encounter could have had a different outcome if someone had just picked up the ball when it bounced in their court. Game over.
I am handicapped. My pillow is wet from tears. I drift off to sleep.