Friday, January 29, 2010

Oh No, It Might Rain in San Juan Tomorrow

While I never really look forward to going to get my Baclofen pump refilled, I’m absolutely dreading tomorrow’s trip to Puerto Rico to see my physiatrist. It’s not because I’m worried that the airline will cancel our flight again, or because it’s an incredibly long day with a lot of exhausting transfers to and from my chair (which it is -- I average 26 transfers during every trip).  It’s because the weather forecast says there there’s a chance of rain in San Juan tomorrow evening.

During my last trip to this doctor, I had the worst experience with boarding a plane I've ever had, all because it was raining.

We were waiting to board the flight home.  A taxi to wheelchair transfer a few hours before had gone bad, and recovering from it had wiped me out physically and sent my pain levels soaring. Just as the airline staff member came to escort to the elevator that would take us downstairs for pre-boarding, the skies open up into an unrelenting downpour.

Boarding these island hopper prop jets involves walking/rolling across a couple hundred yards of  tarmac to reach the waiting plane, then climbing the stairs or using an aisle chair and a hand-cranked lift to board the plane, so the airline ground personnel decided to delay boarding in an attempt to wait out the rain. This decision to wait it out made the ground crew -- the only people clothed head to toe in heavy rain gear, by the way -- feel great, but left us "special needs" passengers and our traveling companions grow increasingly antsy to get to our final destination.

Finally, the ground crew reluctantly acknowledge that the rain isn't going to ease up, so it's time to go for it. Even though passengers like me who need to use their hand-cranked lift to get on the plane are usually allowed to board before the able-bodied passengers, for some reason the crew decide that tonight, I’ll be the last one allowed to take my seat.

When it’s finally my turn to head out to the aircraft, the crew member assigned to be our escort hands me an oversized umbrella to hold while another airline employee pushes me. Since I have to hold the umbrella high enough that it won't poke the person pushing me in the eye or obscure her vision, it's pretty much useless in terms of  keeping me dry.  And wouldn't you know it, lightning starts flashing across the sky as we're walking to the ift. I'm thinking, "Great, I'm about to get loaded into an all metal cage and slowly cranked toward the sky in the middle of a thunderstorm. Yeah, this sounds safe."  By the time we traverse the 150 yards between the terminal and the plane, I'm soaking wet and the night‘s being lit up by lightning every 90 seconds or so.

We arrive plane side to find that the aisle chair has been sitting out in pouring rain the whole time the rest of the passengers were boarding, and it is soaked. Since there's no way for the HipHubby and I to do a pivot transfer from my chair to the aisle chair under umbrella cover, we have to do it out in the rain.   I land square in the puddle that's formed on the seat. The whole time we're doing the transfer, we're being told by the our airline escort to hurry up -- not because of the lightning, mind you, but because he's worried about my wheelchair cushion getting wet!

The rushed transfer causes me to land askew in the aisle chair, which was not only uncomfortable, it ended up biting me in the ass -- er, elbow.

As soon as my bottom hit the seat, the crew jump into action to strap me in the narrow aisle chair.  Once I’m secured, the HipHubby scurries up the stairs to prepare to help me transfer while my escort tries to push me forward onto the lift. His aim is bad and the right front wheel of the chair drives off the lift’s access ramp, causing my right knee to bang into the edge of the lift gate. The airline crew member decides that since it's dangerous for us to be exposed to the lightning, he's going to turn me around, tilt the chair back almost 60 degrees, and load me onto the plane backward. As he does, airline employee #2 grabs me and forcefully attempts to tuck my right arm across my body, a position that it will not go into because that shoulder is dislocated. All the while, the airline staff are talking back and forth to each other in Spanish and not listening to anything I'm saying. The rain keeps coming down, and with me laying almost on my back in the aisle chair, I need to keep exhaling hard out of my nose to keep the rain water from entering my nostrils.

Sitting in the cold rain, strapped awkwardly into the hard, narrow aisle chair, it seemed to take forever for them to hand crank the lift up to the level of the plane door. The airline escort finally starts pulling me backwards onto the plane, but my right thigh, knee, and arm are scraped along the metal railings of the lift the whole way because I'm not sitting straight in the aisle chair. Cold and soaked to the skin now becomes cold, soaked to the skin and in pain.

The guy from the ground crew continued to drag me backwards onto the plane, and even tried to start up the aisle that way until he finally decided to listen to what I'd been telling him all along -- that I can't transfer to the seat if I'm facing the rear of the plane. After a lot of finagling between the tight corners at the back of the plane (it loads from the rear), including a lot of smashing my knees and feet into the walls and sharp corners despite theHipHubby's best efforts to protect me, I was finally able to head up the narrow aisle facing the right direction.

We're always seated in the second row from the rear, so it's a very short trip from the rear of the aircraft to my seat. Even so, I notice that I am the main attraction  -- more than a few passengers have turned around in their seats to watch the spectacle unfold. That sense of forced exhibitionism is the main reason I hate being the last person allowed to board.

After the HH helps me transfer to my seat, we notice that there is blood on his hand and shirt, and on the wall of the plane across the aisle from my seat. Turns out that the source of that blood is a gash near my right elbow that's bleeding pretty profusely. Time to update my status to cold, soaked to the skin, in pain, and bleeding.

God bless the flight attendants, who somehow managed to wrangle me a blanket and some first aid supplies while we waited still longer to depart (we had to sit on the tarmac for another half hour
waiting for the inclement weather to clear), despite the airline's efforts to eliminate all amenities as part of their cost cutting measures. Thankfully it was not raining when we landed on St. Croix an hour after we took off from San Juan, and getting off the plane went without a hitch.  American Airlines let me keep the blanket as a consolation prize. Whoop dee doo.

Wish me luck tomorrow.  And a precipitation-free day.

1 comment:

Stephanie said...

Brrrr. I am shivering just reading this. Hope the weather holds!