By Ken Bradbury
I apologized to her as quickly as I could. Honest. Yes, I could see her foot; and yes, I was driving; and no, I didn’t do it on purpose. This was my first time driving this type of vehicle.
I’d seen wheelchairs all my life and when our riverboat would dock at ‘Dosh or Grafton I often helped steer the little four-wheeled rascals down the ramp and into an awaiting tour bus. I mean, in theory I knew how they worked. I also know how a Boeing 737 works in theory but I’m not yet ready to fly one.
But the rascals don’t come with instructions and if you’re standing at the door of the east entrance to Passavant mentally counting the steps it’ll take to get to the doc’s office with a walker, you tell yourself that it’s time for your first ride in a wheelchair.
I guess I’d ridden them before but someone else was pushing. Most hospitals have a small stable of wheelchairs in their lobbies. Like industrial shopping carts, just pick one up and go. Memorial Hospital in Springfield even has some sumo-sized models that could easily accommodate a family of four … and most of their pets. Passavant had the normal-sized herd between their electric doors so I picked out a model that had four wheels and was black. This wasn’t hard since they all had four wheels and were black. But here is where my learning began. By the time my short stint in the lobbies and offices of Passavant was done I had compiled a short list of wheelchair rules that I recorded for future reference. So … Wheelchair Driving 101:
1. The brakes must be used simultaneously. I was sitting so low in the wheelchair that the lady behind the enclosure couldn’t see me but she heard me when I put on the left brake before the right one, causing the chair and I to take an especially wicked left turn, sending me headlong into her desk. She asked if I was okay. Of course not. By this time every other passenger standing in line was looking at me and secretly trying to recall the penalty for driving while intoxicated.
2. Low flying aircraft are harder to detect. I’d never noticed this before but most people don’t tend to look down when they’re walking. I remember that in the early days of the auto, cars were required to honk before rounding corners on country roads. This might be a dandy law to bring back considering how many people walk the average hospital hallway and how fast they’re going before they crash into you.
3. Friction is not your friend. A lady friend of mine was pushing me toward the awaiting waiting room and when we reached our destination I thought I’d try stopping the chair myself so I grabbed onto the rolling rubber wheels to slow my descent. Bad idea. Really bad idea. I can’t tell you how bad an idea that was. I’m not sure what temperature can be reached when human skin comes in contact with rolling rubber, but it could as least warm you coffee.
4. Cow Catchers are back in style. The first railroad trains actually had steel scoop-shaped devices attached to the front of the engine and their sole purpose was to remove anything that might do serious damage to a train. The modern wheelchair has the same sort of device but in this case they’re called “footrests.” These little instruments of evil have been designed to be exactly the height of the average American ankle and will wipe out anyone in a five foot radius if you choose to execute a 360 on your wheelchair.
5. No shock absorbers, Honey. Whatever pain or misery caused you to use a wheelchair in the first place will be multiplied the first time you hit a bump. The feeling is somewhere between physical therapy and acupuncture.
6. You must prepare your cabin before liftoff. She didn’t know any better but the sweet little lady who rolled me back out to entryway didn’t notice that I still had my feet on the floor and not on the footrests. If done with enough speed this causes your toes to catch on the carpet and your entire body to be dragged underneath the wheelchair. We didn’t get so far as to drag me under but the action did untie one of my shoes.
7. I learned this one the hard way. As they wheel you through the other waiting areas do not shout, “Vroom! Vroom! Vroom!” This bothers the receptionist a great deal even though the kiddies waiting for their chickenpox vaccinations will be delighted.