My trip to Australia ended last Saturday when Kelly and I flew back to the United States. We both set our alarms once again for another early morning. Ulla and Carlos helped us schlep our belongings down the hill to the train station. After repeated farewell hugs, Kelly and I boarded the train for the airport. The sunshine sparkled on the harbour as we rode out of the central business district. I watched the pedestrians walking to and from coffee shops, wishing I could spend just a few more days exploring with them.
The Qantas counter at the international terminal was very busy, with long queues for every check-in terminal. However, a very kind customer service agent pulled us aside and brought us straight to the counter. Brian, our friendly ticket agent, processed our luggage and I was relieved to see I was .3 kilograms under the weight restriction for my suitcase. He then walked us through security and escorted us right to the gate, where he arranged for me to receive a pre-flight latte upon boarding. I’m not saying you’ll get the same service if you fly with Qantas, but they provided us with many extras which weren’t expected.
I have flown many times and I am accustomed to giving the ground crew instructions on how to safely maneuver my body in and out of the aisle chair for transfers on and off the plane. Boarding the plane in Sydney was a new experience. Qantas uses an Eagle lift to help people who cannot walk. I have used a lift before for transfers on and off examination tables in doctor’s offices, and I knew some airlines were using lifts on planes, but prior to last Saturday I had never used one. To see a demonstration of the lift process you can watch the promotional video here.
The video makes the process look simple, which in theory it is. The harness is positioned behind the passenger’s back. The leg straps are positioned under the legs and then securely fastened to the hoist. The passenger’s wheelchair is moved into the lift and locked in place. The passenger is then lifted out of the wheelchair, suspended in the lift which is then wheeled down the aisle to the appropriate seat on the plane. The passenger is moved over the row of seats and slowly lowered. The video is approximately five minutes long, and if your transfer only takes five minutes it would be shorter than the time it took to transfer me on to the plane in Sydney.
My experience began when Jim came to introduce himself and explain the transfer process. Jim was training a new team member (Betsy? I can’t remember so I’ll call her that for now) and wanted to know if I was comfortable having an extra person participate. Because I was once a student clinician, and I believe people learn best by doing, I have always agreed to let people learn through me in medical settings. This was no different. Adding Betsy to the boarding party, it took four people to use the lift to get me to my seat. Boarding with an aisle chair takes two.
Fifty minutes before the flight was due to depart, Jim and Betsy came to bring me down to the plane. We were once again flying on an Airbus A380 so I drove my chair directly onto the plane and into the lower forward galley behind first class, in front of the economy section. (Note: If airline regulations permitted people with disabilities to sit in the exit row, I could have transferred directly into the aisle seat of the bulkhead row by the door and avoided the need for assistance from anyone other than Kelly. If the airlines let us stay in our wheelchairs like we can on every other mode of public transportation, I could have easily maneuvered my chair into a space. But that’s a discussion for another post.)
Jim then began demonstrating how to position the harness, instructing Betsy as he slid the harness behind me. Betsy was timid about lifting my legs to place the strap in the correct position. I told her not to be afraid, and showed her how to lift and move my legs.
As an aside – people always worry about hurting me when they help me for the first time or two. Don’t. I have a high tolerance for pain. It takes a lot to truly hurt me or cause an injury, should we ever be together and I ask you for assistance. You’re not going to hurt me. I appreciate the concern for my well-being, but I’m tougher than I look. End of complaint. Back to the lift.
Once Jim and Betsy had the harness correctly positioned, the two lift operators (I don’t know what else to call them) brought the hoist frame forward towards my chair. They hooked me to the hoist and slowly began lifting me from my chair. Kelly instructed Jim on how to disengage my wheelchair’s drive motors, placing my wheelchair in free wheel mode so it could be wheeled manually off the plane. The lift operators rotated the lift and wheeled me down the aisle to my seat.
The video I referenced above shows a smooth lateral transfer from the aisle to the seat. If my knees bent at ninety degrees, my lateral transfer out of the aisle to the seat probably would have been smooth too. But my knees don’t bend at ninety degrees, which meant Jim and Betsy had to try to hold my feet out of the way of the seat back in front of me in order to move me out of the aisle. And when they lowered me into the seat, my foot got caught on the tray table latch and the back of the harness got caught on the movable head rest. Thankfully, the lift operators listened to me as I instructed them on how to move me. I was eventually positioned comfortably in the seat and I was not hurt along the way.
The entire process of hooking me to the harness and completing the move took about eight minutes from start to finish. When I transfer using an aisle chair, I can do the entire process with two people (one to lift under the arms and one to lift under the legs) in about three minutes. That includes the time it takes to strap me in and out of the aisle chair.
The Eagle lift could be great for those people who are unable to be directly lifted by others. If someone regularly uses a lift at home for transfers, the Eagle lift might make it possible for them to fly when they have not been able to be assisted safely on/off the plane in the past. Using a lift could reduce the risk of injury to both passenger and the staff assisting them. But, given the option, I would rather just have two people lift me onto an aisle chair and then again into the seat.
My choice is not what everyone would choose, and I understand that the option which works for me may not be the best for everyone else. Would I like to see wider use of the lift by other airlines in other airports? You bet. Will I use it if it is available? Yes, but only if I have to because an aisle chair is not an option. Would I rather just have the opportunity to remain in my own wheelchair on an airplane, securely fastened with tie down straps as is currently done on buses and trains? Of course.
Our flight to Los Angeles was completely full. We shared our row of three seats with Jennifer, who expertly crawled over both Kelly and I using the armrests to get to her window seat. She was returning home to Florida from a trip to New Zealand. I settled in to watch movies, something I hardly ever do at home. After two long-haul flights, I am caught up on almost everything I wanted to see, with the exception of Lincoln, because I finally fell asleep after I started watching it.
The Qantas flights provided me with THE song which will forever remind me of this journey. I attach memory to music. I always have. I hear a song and I can tell you who it reminds me of and why. The “Aussie tunes” playlist on my iPod has 289 songs which bring me back to my previous times in Australia. I really didn’t listen to music during this trip, except for the long flights over the Pacific. Last year, Qantas launched a new advertising campaign featuring a version of the Randy Newman song, Feels Like Home, performed by Martha Marlow. The song played repeatedly over the airplane speakers as passengers boarded and disembarked the plane. One of the lift operators sang along with it as he moved me into my seat. It also played each time I activated the touch screen at my seat to select a new movie. Good job Qantas; the song now triggers memories of Australia. You can see the ad and listen to the song for yourself:
We departed Sydney on Saturday at 10:45 AM local time and landed in Los Angeles on Saturday at 6:15 AM local time, three and a half hours before we left. Well, not really. It was really 12:15 AM Sunday back in Australia. But when you travel you are supposed to adjust yourself to the time zone you are in, and I was smack in the middle of the day that never ends.
One thing which made this trip easier was the availability of family restrooms at many of our destinations. Kelly and I were able to have space for our belongings as well as space for my wheelchair near the commode when we used these public toilets. I also didn’t have to wonder who might be listening when I gave commands like, “No, move the left butt cheek further over.” The domestic and international terminals in Baltimore, Los Angeles, Melbourne and Sydney all have family restrooms. Family restrooms are especially useful if your personal assistant does not identify or present as the same gender as you. I was fortunate not to have to worry about this with Kelly, but I know several couples who choose certain airports for layovers because they know they will have access to a family restroom.
Kelly’s flight for Arizona left about an hour before my flight. While we were waiting for our domestic flights, I learned it was snowing back home. In fact, many friends and family took great delight in letting me know I would be coming back to snow. I was not amused but then again, I had been bragging about my adventure in warmth and sunshine for two weeks so the ribbing was probably due.
Thankfully, I slept for most of my flight to Baltimore. When we landed, I confirmed my arrival with my sister Sandy who was picking me up at the airport. Unfortunately, we were delayed leaving Baltimore. I finally arrived in Albany on Saturday, 10:15 PM local time, twenty seven and a half hours after departing Sydney that morning.
I wish I could tell you how wonderful it was to be home, in my own apartment. But my homecoming was not good. There was snow on the ground, it was cold, and the apartment repairs and maintenance which were to take place in my absence were not completed. I returned to a mess, piles of boxes, and a botched paint job in my bathroom. The property managers and I have since taken steps to ensure all of the work will be done within the next week. But the state of my apartment upon my return, combined with fatigue, jet lag and the depression from leaving Australia, caused a massive midnight meltdown.
However, I will not let the current situation take away from what was an AMAZING experience. My Australian adventure was all I hoped it would be, and more than I dreamed. I connected with old friends and “family,” forged new relationships, visited beautiful locations, ate great food, drank great wine, and made memories which will keep me going until the next visit. Because there will be a next visit. I don’t know how, and I don’t know when. But it will happen.
I appreciate all of you who have read my travel journals for the past few weeks. I started this blog last year so I could learn the mechanics of blogging before this trip. What a joy it was to be able to share my adventure with those at home and around the world. I am grateful for your comments and reactions through the trip. I will archive these posts into an Australia 2015 page at some point. Next week I will return to regular blogging. And then I think it will be time to start the book I promised my sister Mary Jane I would write.
**Today’s post is brought to you by my wonderful cousin and travel partner, Kelly. Kelly – you volunteered to join me on this adventure and made it possible for me to travel back to Australia. I am so grateful and happy you were able to be a part of this trip. It would not have been the same fantastic experience without you. I’ll keep working on New Zealand!