I thought the coach from my high school who helped me train for the ParalymIpics might be disappointed. I thought my family would think I had given up. I was afraid lots of people in my life wouldn’t understand. So I resisted. For a long time. It wasn’t for me. No. It was for people who didn’t have any strength. It was for people who couldn’t stretch out and be comfortable. People without movement or flexibility. It was only for people who didn’t have other options. Power wheelchairs were for other folks.
I grew up in a household where everyone encouraged independence. Well, wait. That is kind of like saying that Mother Teresa was a nice person who thought it was a good idea to help the poor in Calcutta. My wheelchair wasn’t allowed in my house when I was a kid; my parents required that I walk with my canes instead. I had physical therapy at least once a week from before I was two until I graduated from high school. My bedroom in our house growing up was on the second floor. I was pushed. I had to dress myself every day including socks and braces. When I wanted to play with some of my friends in our neighborhood, it was expected that I walk down the street to their house. The pool that was in our backyard had steps to get in it, and the accessible shower that was in our bathroom downstairs was not installed until after we had lived there for a number of years. My parents did what they thought was best. Some of those decisions were extremely hard on me.
But in terms of getting from place to place in my wheelchair at school, I was never pushed. Getting from point A to point B on campus was my responsibility, even if I was slow; I got to where I was going myself. Pushing my wheelchair was so much a part of my life that when the opportunity presented itself to participate in wheelchair track sporting events, I put most of my energy into getting stronger and pushing harder so that I could be the best. And I was. For a while. I held national records and earned medals because I was so good at pushing my wheelchair fast.
So a power chair? No way. Not in my lifetime.
But life has a way of throwing curve balls unexpectedly. Shortly after high school graduation, I had major surgery and an extremely difficult recovery. I lost a whole lot of my strength, and because I wasn’t working out at the time, I didn’t really regain it. Then I discovered in college that I could get to lots of my classes more quickly if I asked someone to push me there. At the time my focus was on getting a college education and not maintaining my physical ability. I stopped walking with my canes. For a long time, I stopped going to physical therapy as well.
More curve balls came my way. When I was being picked up from work one night, the driver of the public transportation van in the city where I live did not secure my chair to the bus correctly. As he was driving and hit the brakes a few minutes later, I landed on the floor of the bus and ended up with a permanent back injury. A few years after that there was a pinched nerve in my spinal cord and over time lots of chronic pain.
Needless to say, it has become more difficult to push my wheelchair, and the suggestion first came about a year ago. It was from my rehabilitation doctor. “Lorraine,” she said gently, “Would you ever consider a power chair?” I cringed at the many thoughts that flowed through my head. It will make me lazy. It will mean I am not capable. It just isn’t me. Then my physical therapist said she thought it would be good for me. Huh. Lots of people who know what they are talking about were like minded on this issue.
I reconsidered and pondered the pros and cons for several months. The cons were obvious, everything I had been scared of. But the pros I came up with made me think long and hard. There could be a tilt or recline option on this power chair.
If features of this chair could help me change my sitting position in ways that I currently cannot do on my own, then maybe my back pain wouldn’t be so intense. Maybe my neck wouldn’t be tight all the time. Maybe my posture would be better if I wasn’t leaning forward so much. There are some days I have lots of trouble transferring myself in and out of bed. If I had the option to literally lay down in my chair with the push of a button, then naps would be possible when I need them. That could make a world of difference for me. Furthermore, if I routinely felt better and had more energy, then I would be much more likely to work out and stand on my parallel bars than I am now.
The deciding factor came for me as I thought through a conversation I had with my “wheelchair guy”. We have been trying to get my manual chair comfortable for me for almost a year and a half, with no luck. He asked if I had ever considered using a power chair, and patiently listened as I listed all of my objections. “I’ve heard that argument,” he said, “and I understand it completely. But I have some questions for you. When was the last time you took your dog for a walk by yourself or went downtown on your own because it was a nice day and you decided that was what you wanted to do for the afternoon?”
I was totally silent. I couldn’t even remember.
Lee continued. “I happen to think that true independence is having the choice to do what you want to do by yourself, and it doesn’t have anything to do with your ability to push your own wheelchair.”
Wow. That made sense.
So next month I am starting the process of getting a battery operated wheelchair. I am convinced it will enable me to do all kinds of things that I cannot do now and will make my life much more enjoyable. And I can hardly wait.
That is what I call power!