Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Bahamas 2012, #2: Getting There

I think that there are at least three people living inside of us at all times. There is an anticipating self, imagining the future. There is a remembering self, recalling the past. And of course there is an experiencing self, taking pleasure in, or sometimes merely enduring, the present.

Regarding our recently completed Caribbean vacation, the handoff from anticipating self to experiencing self was announced promptly at 3:00 am on February 19th, by Kim's shrill alarm clock. Our goal was to get to the ticket counter when it opened at 4:30, for our 6:00 flight. The checklists were checked, the bags packed.

We spent a lot of time at the ticket counter in Portland jumping through hoops to get all of our stuff properly accounted for. Because I had so much disability related equipment in tow, we needed to check three bags instead of only two. I was able to negotiate, without much difficulty, that my iBot, my backup wheelchair, and my third bag would fly for free. The iBot is a wonderful device, but its Achilles' heel is its poor battery management, hence the backup chair so that I'm not a slave to the bars on the iBot battery strength indicator.

My brother Andy and his wife Karen were flying with us on AirTran, which was a tremendous help. My brother Tom and his wife Diane were flying USAir because, this being school vacation week in Maine, we couldn't find a block of six affordable tickets on a single airline.

After we had conquered the ticket counter we marched onward to security. Andy, Karen, and Kim passed through their screenings within minutes. Since I can't go through a metal detector in my wheelchair, I am routinely taken aside for a special pat down. Some disabled travelers are perturbed by this, but I'm not. I'm glad that our airlines are so thorough in this post 9/11 world (in retrospect, it would've been nice before 9/11 as well). They used a little wand with special fabric on the end, taking all sorts of swipes on my wheelchair and my shoes and my hands, and ran it through their magic bad stuff detection machine.

Something on my hands set off their machine, so I was taken, with my belongings, to an even more special room for an even more special screening by a higher ranking TSA agent. Throughout this process the agents were very polite and were simply following protocol. I never became frustrated with them, but I began to wonder if arriving only 90 minutes before my flight was cutting it too close. Eventually I was cleared to go, and rejoined my group, which I later found out had decided by a 2 - 1 vote to wait for me instead of making a run for it. Unidentified sources within the group quoted Kim as having plead, “Come on you guys. We’ll never have a better chance to ditch him."

By the time we got to the gate, they were ready to start pre-boarding the disadvantaged people, and me.

Each time I board or disembark a plane, there are at least two and sometimes three transfers involved. Each one presents its own challenges. When boarding this first plane in Portland, I positioned my iBot near the mouth of the plane at the end of the jetway. Then we initiated a set of highly orchestrated steps which we became more and more adept at accomplishing over the course of the week (4 flights, twice per flight).

imagesI powered down the iBot, and Kim started disconnecting the joystick controller module. We like to take that expensive and fragile item on the plane with us so it doesn't get damaged by those oh-so-careful baggage handlers. Then I removed the foot pedals so that they too would not be damaged in transit. I handed these off to my sister-in-law, Karen, and she carried them on the plane, placing them in the overhead bin. I then instructed the airport employee who was managing the aisle chair (a special, narrow, wheelchair that can fit down the aisle of an airplane) to place it alongside my iBot, as close as possible, facing in the same direction as my wheelchair.

Then, little by little, I slid off my iBot and on to the aisle chair. Andy moved my feet a few inches every time I moved my butt a few inches. Eventually, the transfer was complete. At that point Kim lowered the seat back on my iBot, putting it in what I fondly refer to as “armadillo mode,” and instructed the baggage handlers on how to set and release the parking brake. Then the iBot was whisked off into the luggage compartment of the plane.

2010 04 04If the gate agent is doing their job correctly, the rest of the passengers are waiting patiently in the terminal while I complete this delicate process. About 50% of the time, however, succumbing to the pressure to stay on schedule, the agent prematurely allows the healthy flyers to start down the jetway so that 20 or 30 people can observe my elaborate boarding dance. I know time is money, but that's not cool.

Next, I was strapped into the aisle chair with about five different seatbelts. Finally, I was backed into the airplane by an entourage of concerned relatives, airport employees, and airline staff. As we were squeezing down the narrow aisle in the aircraft, inevitably we would drift too far to one side or the other and have to go forward a little bit to reset. Throughout the process everyone had an opinion, including me, so I guess you could characterize this as "boarding by committee." Eventually I was pulled alongside my assigned seat and my seatbelt leviathan was slain, releasing me from its many-tentacled grip (okay, maybe that's a bit over dramatic).

Ideally, the armrest on an airline seat should rise up so that I can easily slide into it from the aisle chair. However, on these AirTran flights the armrests were not movable. That made things a little more interesting. I somehow lifted myself up onto the armrest with Kim steering me from the inside and Andy guiding from the aisle. An airport employee anchored the aisle chair, and several other folks tried to figure out, mostly unsuccessfully, how to help (these situations often pull forth the better parts of human nature). I then slid down off the armrest into the seat.

Note to self: moveable armrests used to be a nice-to-have for me, but because of my disease progression I will consider them a must-have going forward.

As soon as I was in my seat the airport employee with the aisle chair shuffled out of the plane so that the thundering horde of passengers could begin funneling in. During the flights themselves, you wouldn't know I was handicapped unless you recognized me from the gate area, or if perhaps you asked me to stand in the aisle so that you could get to your window seat.

When we arrived in Baltimore, we allowed everyone to exit the plane ahead of us, which is standard procedure. There's no hurry, since I usually have to wait for my wheelchair to be taken out of the baggage area of the plane and brought up to the jetway. In this case, although we were changing planes to fly to the Bahamas, this particular aircraft was continuing on to Fort Meyers, Florida, and so was my iBot! Eventually, we convinced them to pull the iBot out of the plane and bring it up to me, even though it was improperly tagged for the sunshine State.

It had been a year since I had flown, and I had grown weaker over that period. So, the first time I tried to get myself out of the airplane seat and into the aisle chair, it didn’t work. Our first idea was to have Kim lift on my left shoulder and Andy on my right shoulder. That didn't work, and I landed back in my airplane seat rather awkwardly, crying out briefly in pain and urgently instructing Kim and Andy to adjust my position. I was embarrassed, but recovered quickly (something I’ve become adept at).

I decided that I would have to figure out a way to rise up out of the seat by myself, which I eventually did. For me, these situations are like solving an engineering problem, something that I did every work day for 23 years. Sometimes I solve these equations satisfactorily; sometimes I don't. After crunching some numbers with my slide rule (not really) I was able to get up onto the armrest, have Andy move my feet out into the aisle, and then slide down to the aisle chair. After being properly strapped in, I was squeezed down the aisle and out to the jetway, where we reassembled my iBot, and I transferred into it.

2010 08 10bFrom the time I leave my iBot on a departing flight until I am reunited with it upon arrival, I feel somewhat helpless, completely at the mercy of others. But once I plant my butt back in the iBot I become a new person. At these moments my attitude is not all that different from my big-dog-in-a-little-body West Highland Terrier when I let her out first thing in the morning, full of piss and vinegar and ready to take on the world. I just don’t bark as much.

Click for next post: Bahamas 2012, #3 Still Getting There

Click for previous post: Bahamas 2012, #1 Deciding Where to Go


  1. Mitch, nothing goes completely smoothly with MS, does it? Whenever I fall on the floor my husband has to pick me up; all 180# of dead weight of me. I can't even kneel any more! He always starts with the arms, and I have to say NO, not the arms, Please not the arms.

    The best way to lift is from your center of gravity - and the best purchase from there is your waistband. But in the interest of not getting wedgies, I bought a transfer belt, and we've found that it works pretty well. Especially when you have two strong people assisting in the lift.

  2. Yaaaayyy Mitch!
    Awaiting your next post.....

  3. Sounds as if your adventures began even before you reached your destination. Can't wait to read the rest of the story. (And, yes, I AM jealous!!)

  4. Webster,

    Luckily I haven't fallen on the floor in over a year. Last time I did it was quite a production to get me up.

    Yes, Kim has become adept at moving me around by my waistband. Thanks for your suggestion about a transfer belt. I will look into that.


    My next post is sitting in my editor's (Kim's) inbox right now.


    You are jealous already, and I haven't even got to the good parts yet!

  5. Lots of "cringe factor" in this post. You have a lot of guts.

    Thinking that a Hoyer Lift would come in really handy for those that fall at home. I've used one for my husband more than once to get him up off the floor.

    Love the travelogue.

  6. P.S. La Phoebette looks particularly fierce on top of the woodpile....or maybe she just looks taller.