I’ve always enjoyed traveling. One of my favorite movies is the 2009 comedy-drama “Up in the Air.” I easily identify with the main character, Ryan Bingham, played by George Clooney. Bingham, who loves his job although it requires him to fly around the country, has a goal of accumulating 10 million frequent flyer miles, putting him in lofty company, indeed. In the late 80s through the 90s, I had a job where I found myself on a different flight four or more times a week, and I loved it. While Clooney’s character briskly walked through airports, I, as a T10 complete para, was much quicker wheeling through airports. Domestically, I flew around the country from Maine to Alaska. My international assignments took me from Europe to Mexico and Central America.
Among my jobs, I write about traveling in a column called “Travel Matters” for New Mobility magazine. In addition to my own travel experience, I’ve learned valuable travel tips writing columns and profiles. In March, I went on a seemingly “easy” one-hour flight from Sacramento to Los Angeles to attend the L.A. Abilities Expo, a trip that seriously tested many of my travel tips. Here’s a look:
Skin protection on aisle chairs:
The surfaces of some aisle chairs on planes offer, at best, minimal skin protection. Most of them, however, offer no skin protection. Over the years, I’ve written about quite a few wheelers that have experienced skin breakdown caused by aisle chairs, especially as their skin gets more fragile with age. At 53, and in my 28th year as a para, this is something I’m well aware of.
Tales of aisle chair-induced pressure ulcers I’ve written or heard about were either the result of spending too much time strapped in the aisle chair or from a hard or worn surface of the aisle chair itself. For this reason, I always travel with THE ADAPTOR® PAD by ROHO in my daypack and put it on the aisle chair before transferring.
The least amount of time spent in an aisle chair the better. When boarding the plane, I make it a point to be sure there is clear path to my seat with no other passengers clogging the aisle and that the aisle chair attendants are ready to go before transferring to the aisle chair. When deplaning, I make sure the path is clear, my chair is ready and waiting at the jet way and the aisle chair attendants are ready before transferring from my seat to the aisle chair.
Putting your cushion on the airplane seat:
I place my wheelchair cushion on the airplane seat—being sure it is properly oriented, with the back of the cushion at the back of the seat, and the seatbelts are cleared to the sides of the seat—before transferring onto my seat. At cruising altitude, the cabin pressure of an airplane is the equivalent of being on top of an 8,000 foot mountain—this means a ROHO cushion will become quite firm, so I open the air valve and let some air out. When I land, I re-inflate the cushion. As a caveat, don’t bother with the ROHO inflator pump; I clean the air valve off with a handi-wipe and blow into the valve to re-inflate the cushion.
Protect your skin on accessible hotel shower benches:
The surfaces of hotel shower benches are usually rock-hard and.to make matters worse, they often have water-draining grooves in them that can become a recipe for skin breakdown. THE ADAPTOR PAD provides great protection for this, and I always use one. However, as the photo shows, this “accessible shower” was an epic fail because the water control was out of reach from the shower bench—a problem I’ve encountered before. Who designs these things anyway?
My solution in this case was placing the hose of the shower nozzle in between the grab bar, turning on the water and adjusting the temperature while still in my wheelchair, then transferring onto the shower bench while pushing my chair out of reach of the water. I lifted the nozzle up for my shower, finished, placed the nozzle back in between the grab bar, transferred back to my chair and turned off the water. I somehow managed this feat three days in a row without soaking the chair.
After three exciting days at the Abilities Expo, I returned to LAX with plenty of time—or so I thought—to make it to my quick one-hour return flight. After passing through the long TSA line, I found my return flight was leaving from a satellite gate serviced by bus located outside the first floor. I went to the accessible elevator, only to find it was out of service.
By the time I finally located a working elevator and took the bus ride to my gate, it was time to board. Unfortunately, I had forgotten one of my important travel tips.
When booking a flight, ask for a seat with a moveable aisle armrest:
Although bulkhead seats have more room, the armrests don’t move. Requesting a seat with a moveable aisle armrest–usually the seat behind the bulkhead–can be done when booking a flight or during check-in. Moveable armrests make it easier and safer to transfer from the aisle chair to your designated seat. I know stories of people that have gotten serious pressure ulcers from bumping their backsides on a fixed armrest during a transfer. Since I forgot to ask about this, and it was a full flight and time to pre-board, I channeled my inner Homer Simpson and thought: DOH! Fortunately, I was able to direct the aisle chair attendant to position me for an easy transfer.
How to empty your bladder while flying.
Bladder management while flying is a subject near and dear to my kidneys, and something I wrote about in “Bladder Matters: Airline Bladder Management.”
The bottom line is to try to avoid having to empty your bladder while flying by keeping fluid intake to a minimum before a flight and avoiding coffee and other caffeinated drinks. Caffeine is a diuretic and causes your kidneys to work overtime. On this particular day, waiting for my cab for the airport, I was thirsty and tired, so I drank a cup of coffee and a bottle of water. I thought to myself, “I have plenty of time and it’s only a one-hour flight!”
Because of the gate change and the elevator debacle, I was running late and didn’t have time to visit the restroom before boarding the flight. Again, my thought process was, “It’s a one-hour flight and my bladder isn’t full…yet.” Like clockwork, the sardine can of a commuter jet, with every seat full, pulled back from the gate right on time and proceeded directly to the departure runway, where unfortunately, it proceeded to stop. The engines shut down and the captain announced that due to air traffic we would be waiting for at least an hour before take-off. DOH!
Now I was in trouble. My bladder was quickly filling up and the plane I was on was so small they didn’t have an onboard aisle chair for the restroom. Over the years I’ve heard tales of (male) wheelers discreetly draping a blanket over their laps and catheterizing into an empty plastic water bottle or closed system catheter (internal catheter that drains into a bag that can be capped when finished) bag. I asked the flight attendant if they had a blanket—despite the fact that it was quite warm—they didn’t. Luckily, I had my jacket and a closed system catheter—also luckily, the passengers around me were either dozing or immersed in a book. Throwing embarrassment and modesty to the wind, I draped my jacket over my lap, hoping the plumbing wouldn’t come apart and hoping my jacket would stay tucked around my sides and not slide off, which would leave me in full flash mode, complete with filling a clear catheter bag.
Fortunately, it worked! The closed system bag was full and capped, my bladder was empty, pants zipped up, jacket still over my lap and nobody seemed to notice. I managed to continue my ruse and carefully slid the capped-off, closed system bag inside an airsickness bag and sealed the top. Just as I was finishing doing that, the plane’s engines revved up and the captain announced we would be on our way. AS it turns out, we only sat on the runway for 10 minutes instead of the hour we were told. DOH!
=Accessible Air Travel, A Guide for People With Disabilities: http://www.unitedspinal.org/pdf/2012-accessible-air-travel-brochure.pdf
=Bladder Matters: Airline Bladder Management: http://www.newmobility.com/articleView.cfm?id=12014&srch=Travel%20Matters
=Travel Matters: Air Travel 101: http://www.newm