2008 Contest Shortlist

An Airplane Ordeal

Traveling by air with a brother left in a wheelchair after an accident.

It was an ominous start. One hour before we were supposed to take the red-eye from Calgary to Montreal a nurse knocked on Scott’s hospital room door and matter-of-factly informed me that my father had collapsed in the hospital cafeteria. Complaining of chest pain, he had been rushed into the emergency room.

The story began several weeks earlier when my brother Scott, who was twenty-eight at the time and managing a bar at a ski resort in the Alberta Rockies, was involved in a terrible motor vehicle accident. He was flown to Calgary for emergency surgery but the accident had left him a quadriplegic. My siblings and I took turns flying out to stay with our parents as Scott went through his immediate post-op course in the ICU and, subsequently, his stay on the rehabilitation wing of the hospital.

Being the physician in the family it was determined that I would accompany my parents and Scott on the flight back to New Brunswick once he was deemed stable enough to travel. We knew the job of crossing the country with a quadriplegic was going to be difficult. His numerous splints and braces that kept his arms and legs in proper position had to be continually adjusted; his medications administrated at the correct times and even his catheter bag drained at regular intervals.

The debriefing by the social worker that night was helpful in that she had notified the airline about our trip and wheelchairs and attendants would be available along the way.

After the nurse’s pronouncement about my father I raced downstairs and spent the next fifty minutes working with the ER staff to organize his care. Luckily it wasn’t a heart attack but rather a kidney stone that had knocked him off his feet. However he still had to be admitted and suddenly Scott and I were on our own.

I arrived out of breath back at Scott’s room just as the ambulance attendants were transferring him onto the gurney. Together we loaded all his paraphernalia, luggage and medication into the ambulance. At the airport the attendants helped me carry his gear into the terminal where we transferred him into a wheelchair and then moved everything into the large Air Canada jet.

As Scott had absolutely no ability to manoeuvre his limbs or support himself he was a complete dead weight and it took me a good ten minutes to manoeuvre his 200 pound frame into the seat. The ticketing agent had seen fit to place us in the front row, directly in front of the movie screen. Back then the airplanes were equipped with one large screen rather than the modern drop down screens above every seat.

The trip to the airport had taken a toll on Scott and I was soon busy trying to manage the severe muscle spasms that rolled across his shoulders and neck, all caused by the severed and damaged nerves in his spine. Treating the spasms required the use of medications and the constant shifting of his limbs and torso to take the stress off the muscles. Unfortunately to move him at all I had to stand directly in front of Scott and hoist him up, effectively blocking the movie screen for minutes at a time. I can’t remember the title of the movie but I know the passengers saw very little of it. Rather they were forced to watch me heave Scott into a different position every few minutes in an effort to make him more comfortable. Think of a fireman’s carry in a narrow space and you’ll get the idea.

The ongoing painful spasms had also put Scott in a bad mood which did little to aid the process. The need to drain his catheter bag during the flight brought with it another host of unique problems, ones the airline crew, needless to say, were not well versed in handling. After much consternation I managed to improvise with a kidney basin and a steady hand. Luckily I was familiar with the medications so keeping them straight was the easy part.

The flight arrived in Montreal late, of course, and when the stewardess finally opened the door I saw the embarking passengers were lined up along the gangway. I had to wait until all the passengers aboard the plane had exited before I could even begin to get Scott organized. The tiny wheelchair the airport produced looked like something out of a 1940’s film noir with actual wooden sides and a thin leather backing. It took all of my strength and balance to squeeze his frame into the narrow seat and even then the ancient chair was so unbalanced Scott would abruptly pitch forward without warning. I almost lost him on more than one occasion. The attendants helped me carry his bags and gear and we slowly manoeuvred our way past the line of impatient passengers.

As we made the long, arduous trek through the terminal I was forced to stop several times and pull him upright before he fell out. As I was doing so for the tenth time I had the sudden insight to tilt the chair backwards and keep his weight centered. However as I tilted him back the inevitable happened, the front two wheels abruptly fell off and both of us wanted to scream. I placed the two wheels in his lap and mumbled obscenities under my breath. Scott just rolled his eyes in exasperation.

With the help of the stewardesses we made it to the airport VIP lounge which the airline allowed us to use while we waited for our connecting flight to New Brunswick. I propped Scott’s wheelchair up between two lounge chairs and he quickly fell asleep. I rummaged through the fridge for a couple of bananas and a glass of juice. I had fed him on the plane but I still put away several couple pieces of fruit for when he woke up.

When the time came, I piled the splints and braces on his lap along with the broken wheels, draped the multiple bags across my back and somehow managed to wheel him to the appropriate terminal. I fought back a feeling of panic when I realized the smaller plane that awaited us did not use the extended ramp but rather forced all passengers to descend to the tarmac and climb a portable set of stairs to enter the main door. Scott and I were roughly the same build and there was no way I could carry his frame into that plane.

I went up to the counter and explained the situation to the airline representative. Unfortunately the girls at the counter said there was no other way to enter the plane. After a lengthy discussion one of the Air Canada workers came up with the idea to use the food loading vehicles. We could lift Scott up in his wheelchair and take him in through the side of the plane where food and supplies were loaded.

We got him into the vehicle easily enough and even raised him (and me) to the level of the plane. However, that’s where we ran into our next problem. The rails that extend from the food vehicle to the plane, like the steel rails of a railway track, were two inches too narrow for the wheels on Scott’s wheelchair. It wouldn’t roll into the plane. After twenty minutes of useless tinkering I gave up and forcibly rammed the wheelchair across the rails. It created a wave of sparks and an ungodly shriek, no doubt scaring the passengers, but we finally got onboard.

The space immediately behind the cockpit was too tiny for the wheelchair so I was forced to lift him over my shoulder and navigate the sharp turn. I think I bumped his head on the overhead compartments only twice but to this day he swears it was double that. In any event, after eliciting several caustic comments from Scott and jamming my hip against the armrests hard enough to draw blood, I managed to drop him into one of the seats. At that point neither of us was even remotely in good humour.

What followed was another agonizing two hours spent repositioning his limbs and torso, readjusting his splints and draining his catheter bag. By the time we arrived in Saint John I had been awake for over 36 hours and was feeling like a dog’s breakfast. I had no idea how I was going to get him off the small plane and into the terminal. Luckily my mother had called ahead and apprised the family of the situation. When we touched down, my other siblings were waiting in the terminal and quickly boarded the plane to take over.

An ambulance took us to our local hospital and only when we had Scott safely admitted did I feel like the nightmare was finally over.

That, by far, was my (and Scott’s) worst trip ever.

Mike Simon