Then They Put us in Wheelchairs, Among Many Other Things

I haven’t posted in a while, so forgive the length on this one. My fault. To be completely honest though, due to the nature of the last couple of weeks I’ve been choosing the option of complete veg-mode during my study breaks. The tornado sped up, and we’ve had a couple more tests and quizzes, too many Powerpoint slides to count, we just had a hot-topics debate, and we all finished our wheelchair projects. Right now, we are in the eye of the storm before the last push through finals and our first practicals.

Before coming to PT school, I had never spent any admirable length of time in a wheelchair; my only experience was a trip from the recovery room to the car after a simple spinal tap procedure. Besides that, I have been exercising my freedom of leg-mobility since I could stand.

I’ve met others who have been in wheelchairs, and it’s honestly never crossed my mind that the freedom I have could disappear in a split second. I also did not realize how much I have taken my legs for granted all these years. Our assignment: spend a day in a wheelchair.

Before I go any further, I need to say this: I can honestly say that this project was rough, and I’ll elaborate why later. That does not mean that it was not a good, effective project. I also need to say, for those who read this, that there is no way for any of us to fully understand the difficulties that come with being in a wheelchair long-term; we cannot feel the full frustration of limitations that come with the lifestyle adjustments that would need to be adopted. We had the comfort in the back of our minds that the next day things would be back to normal. It’s an unavoidable flaw in the project, and it makes our knowledge and understanding limited. That being said, it is our goal as future physical therapists and members of the healthcare system to be able to put ourselves in our patients shoes to the best of our abilities.

One of my classmates and I agreed to pair up do different days so that the person who wasn’t in the chair could serve as the “stand-by” assistance, for lack of a better term. I followed her as she rolled into our school’s gym that morning. To sum it up, what normally would have been about a 1.5 hour process of leaving class, driving to the gym, working out, then driving home, took us almost twice as long. She did arms and I went to do legs, but I stayed within her view so I could observe the atmosphere around her. I had to help her with some equipment setup, and we had to get creative with a lot of the workouts she could do. After a little while I noticed that the central area of the weight floor (it’s one of things with a bunch of  pull-up bars, bands, etc.), that had a handful of students using it when we got there, had completely cleared out and stayed that way until after she was done using it.


A few other of my classmates decided to try taking the wheelchairs out to the normal weekend night bar scene. There were a lot of mixed reactions. One of my classmates was getting high-fives all night, especially when he started doing wheelies on the dance floor, but he was also getting reprimanded from others who thought the project was insulting and insensitive.

Ask anyone from my class who tried to get around our school’s campus in a wheelchair, and we will all tell you it sucked. For whatever reason, the founders of our school decided that the grounds should be nothing but hills and stairs. No need for further comment on this issue.

I signed up for one of the later dates so I could observe and talk to a lot of my classmates. I really wasn’t looking forward to it because I never can predict a sciatica flare-up. Well, fate was not on my side this time. Not even two hours into the project the discomfort started settling in, and then by the time I got to the grocery store 2 hours later I wanted to cry. It just so happened to be one of the worst flare-ups I’ve had; but the catch with this project is that when you’re out in public, you really can’t come out of character. To be honest, I was about to put up my white flag right there in the bread isle, then I crossed paths with a man in a power scooter who had an amputated leg with his young son walking next to him. Talk about putting things in perspective.

Personally, I already thought I had the whole empathy down. I was proven to be overconfident. I had no idea. I hated this project. It was frustrating, and incredibly physically painful for me; but it shined a lot of light on me. I took my freedom for granted. Again, this project is flawed because we are not programmed to feign paralysis; we have natural tendencies to readjust ourselves for comfort; if something requires the use legs we can come out of character as needed. LEGS ARE A LUXURY. There is more freedom in our legs than in the Constitution. If I had a wish, it would be that all good people had fully functional legs. I only needed a small taste of not having my legs to know that I never want to lose them. I don’t like to think what that loss of independence would do to me. I know myself to be headstrong, and I like to think I would learn to make the best of a not-ideal situation…but I haven’t been there, so I really don’t know. It was that awful of a sciatica flare up.

People see others who are in a wheelchair, and there are a few different reactions that may ensue: they stare A LOT, they overcompensate by quickly turning their head, or they take no notice. At least either of the first two show a sign that you’ve been noticed. Despite the fact that  my time was brief, I didn’t want people to feel sorry for me. I just wanted people to understand. Of course there were people, total strangers, who weren’t phased by it at all and were glad to help when I asked for it.

I really could go on about this topic for a long time. It was more than enlightening. It seriously made me think and take certain aspects of my life into consideration. My ultimate respect goes out to those who have made a normal life for themselves with a wheelchair as part of the picture. I need to give a shout out to my friend Grace, who, in response to one of my posts about this project, offered her own valuable insight to our class after a serious climbing accident rendered her wheelchair bound for a few months. You can see her full story here:

I compiled a short video of some of our experiences. Thank you to my classmates who accept the fact that love to document shit. Please enjoy 🙂



2 thoughts on “Then They Put us in Wheelchairs, Among Many Other Things

  1. Back in the late 70s, my wife (who would have been your aunt had she lived long enough), who was a Type I diabetic, developed Guillain-Barré Syndrome after receiving the swine flu vaccine. She was subsequently hospitalized for six months and was confined to a wheelchair for years afterward. I thought I had a clear concept of what she went through, but after reading your post, I realize how wrong I was. Fortunately, through sheer determination, willpower, and hard work — and the help of excellent physical therapists 🙂 — she was able to regain mobility, albeit needing a walker, then a cane. This past Sunday would have been our 40th anniversary. I think you would have liked her. I know she would have liked you.

    • I didn’t know your wife had Guillian-Barré. Knowing that only gives me more inspiration to keep going with what I’m pursuing. I’m sorry I never got to meet her. I’m glad she was able to be a part of your life for the time that she was, though it was brief.

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