The day was sunny and pleasant. We were filled with anticipation for the highlight of our trip to the Windy City, an architectural tour of downtown Chicago on the Chicago River. The tour boat was listed as handicap-accessible, which it was—almost. As my wife wheeled me down the ramp to the boat we realized that “handicap-accessible” meant I would not only have to stand, but step up onto a wooden box linking the ramp to the boat. To anyone else, that might seem like a simple task. Not to me. I have Becker’s Syndrome Muscular Dystrophy. This condition has almost completely atrophied my thigh and back muscles, making standing and stepping up extremely difficult. Were it not for my extremely strong cousin, I might have had to pass on the tour.
Travel has long presented me with such challenges. Thanks to the kindness of family, friends and strangers who are always willing to help in any way possible. This was the case in Chicago. The tour was educational and it was a joy just to be on the water. It was the highlight of our stay in Chicago.
Some travel challenges for the disabled are easy to overcome, others are not. Our domestic airports do an excellent job of assisting travelers like me—to a point. The airport personnel assist me into a wheelchair the moment I arrive at the airport and I am taken through the check-in and security processes efficiently and politely. They will even take me to the bathroom if needed. But once they take me down the gangway to the entrance of the plane, I am on my own. There are no handicap bars to assist with standing, so I have to frantically search for some piece of equipment to grab onto so I can push myself to a standing position. I next gather my two walking poles and painstakingly make my way to my seat. I pray that the armrest raises up to allow me to sit down a little more easily and, later, get back up.
I take pains to prepare hours ahead of time by avoiding any liquids and will not drink anything on the flight to ensure that I will not have to get up and attempt to go to the bathroom. I also spend my preflight hours hoping that the flight is not changed causing me to lose my aisle seat or sit apart from my family who know exactly how to help me. Invariably, changes occur, requiring long discussions with the flight personnel to get them to understand my unique needs. It has become overwhelming to me, and I am done. The trip to Chicago marks the last time I will ever travel by plane again.
Travel has been a great source of fun and respite from my grueling work as a primary care physician. I have loved travel and flying all my life. I have been blessed with trips all over the US, Panama, Australia, Europe and Africa. I am now left with the memory of these amazing trips. I lament the lack of accessibility on planes for the physically disabled. I speculate the airlines do not make accommodations for the disabled because this would cut into their profit margins. I am not sure how the airlines have managed to get away with not providing any accommodations for the disabled. However, there is nothing I can do about this, and I have to accept this reality.
Once we returned home from Chicago, I became depressed thinking of all the trips I will never take. I began feeling really sorry for myself. But I slowly came to realize that life is more than travel. I started looking for diamonds in life, valuable experiences that don’t require me to fly anywhere.
I think of all the beautiful places that are within a day's drive from my home in Oregon. Hundreds of places that I am content to spend a lifetime enjoying. My family and friends have become even more valuable than ever! They become my respite from the difficulties of life. Teaching a theology class at my church invigorates me and gives meaning and purpose to my life. Savoring a good meal at an amazing new restaurant becomes an event to remember for a lifetime. Appreciating the simple beauty of the flowers and birds in my back yard provide hours of enjoyment each week. These diamonds of life are the things that fill me with joy, a joy that Beckers Syndrome Muscular Dystrophy can not take away!
Dr. R.F. Warda, M.D., is a primary care physician in Portland, Oregon. He is active in his local church and enjoys studying history and theology, cycling, traveling, and watching the Trailblazers and Timbers. Most of all, he loves spending time with his wife and their two boys.