An Unexpected Sojourn to the Tarmac of Santiago Airport

I wrote this post for the new Story of the Month series that my non-profit (No Limits Collaborative) just started. Feel free to check out our site if you haven’t already. More great things to come!

http://www.nolimitscollaborative.org/story-of-the-month/an-unexpected-sojourn-to-the-tarmac-of-santiago-airport

There I was, sitting in a flimsy collapsible wheelchair on the tarmac, with the hot starry sky above me and hundreds of frantic and upset travelers walking past me to ascend the stairs into the massive Boeing 777. Most people didn’t seem to notice me as they scrambled past and those that did make eye contact glanced away quickly, seemingly pitying me as they climbed up into the airplane.

Living with a spinal cord injury is not easy, to say the least. Getting around town and into and out of cars and buildings and houses to get through day-to-day life is difficult enough. But traveling internationally presents a host of new challenges that one must overcome just to get from point A to point B.

Last month, I had just finished a trip to Chile for continued physical therapy and rehab and after weaving our way through the traffic-clogged streets of Santiago, the taxi had dropped my buddy and I off at the airport with plenty of time to catch our overnight Air Canada flight. We had arrived quite early, informed the grumpy man behind the check in desk that I would need an aisle chair to get onto the plane, and once he indifferently nodded and shrugged us away, we had made our way to the gate to wait for our plane to board.

I have traveled on planes enough since my injury to know that I must communicate my needs repeatedly and meticulously to different members of the airline at all the different parts of the airport in order to ensure that everything happens smoothly: that the airline has an aisle chair with which to board me onto the plane (personal wheelchairs are too wide and bulky for the narrow aisle), that we can take apart my wheelchair and stow parts, if not all of it, in the closets and overhead bins – much to the frequent dismay of the flight attendants who usually refuse to remove their personal belongings to make room, before they sometimes finally concede – and that we can board the plane before all of the other travelers in order to easily get to our seats. So this time, as any other, we had communicated all of this and assumed that things were in order.

The airline didn’t announce that the flight was delayed, it just became clear when an hour had passed after our boarding time and nothing had happened. The Air Canada staff didn’t even seem to know where the plane was (we were in a ground level gate without the jetway to the plane so no one could see it) and didn’t ease the travelers’ concerns by staying silent. Things started to get a little tense, as expected, since most of the travelers had connecting flights to catch in Toronto and it was clear that many would miss their connections.

Finally, we were told that the plane was on the tarmac and that buses would shuttle us there to board. Immediately, I recognized the challenge this would pose to me and I flagged down the Air Canada employee who wasn’t frantically running around trying to quell the unrest. It turned out that he was the manager and I politely explained my situation to him and asked if they had a plan to get me into the plane. He blinked and stared back at me in silence. I repeated my request, this time a bit more forcefully and he waved his hand at me dismissively, crossed his arms and just stood there apathetically.

Some people believe that it can be easier and better to speak a foreign language when one is angry or intoxicated, likely from a lack of inhibition or restraint. As such, after two weeks in Chile, my Spanish was flowing strong and following the uninspiring response from the Air Canada manager, the verbal tirade that flowed out of me felt so natural that I even surprised myself with the extent of my vocabulary and the grammatical accuracy of my complex sentences. The manager shrugged and walked away.

A few minutes later, a friendly young guy wearing a Santiago Airport t-shirt and assisting an elderly woman in a wheelchair approached me. Upset at how I was being treated by the Air Canada staff, he offered to help. “Estos huevónes no saben nada,” he said. These idiots don’t know anything. He had seen someone in a wheelchair get into a plane from the tarmac before and said that the airport had a specific device that he would try to secure to help us. I was simultaneously baffled and grateful when he took out his personal cell phone and started making calls. A few minutes later, despite the continued confusion and indifference of the actual Air Canada staff, friendly young guy assured us that we would be ok. “No te preoccupes.” Don’t worry, he said with a smile.

And that’s how I ended up on the tarmac, almost four hours after our designated departure time, with the plane towering behind me as friendly young guy attached the wheelchair I was sitting in to a device with small wheels and levers that would slowly climb up each stair, all the way up to the plane door.

I don’t think Air Canada realized or appreciated just how helpful friendly young guy had been since they had completely excused themselves from helping me and never once took initiative to resolve the unexpected set of events. Even when we finally got into the plane, they didn’t have an aisle chair available and seemed surprised and annoyed to have to “deal with me.” Thankfully, my buddy is the strongest person I know and he effortlessly piggybacked me from the flimsy wheelchair to my seat.

I’m not sure what the moral of the story is, maybe just that sometimes no amount of preparation or communication will be enough to assure a smooth journey. Or maybe that when traveling, especially internationally, one should be prepared for any kind of adversity or challenge. Or maybe that there are kind, generous people out there and it’s imperative to be grateful for them. Or maybe just that Air Canada really sucks and needs to step up their game. Probably all of the above…

A slightly less lonely passport

Brazil. Nepal. Slovakia. India. Finland. The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan (yes that’s the official name). Tunisia. Laos. Egypt. New Zealand. Norway. Peru.

Between 2003 and 2012, my passport filled with stamps from the many places I had the extraordinary privilege of traveling to. As a trip leader for a company with biking, hiking and multi-sport vacations all over the world, I had the incredible opportunity to live and work in a number of different countries, getting to know the cultures more intimately and having the chance to explore some of the less traveled paths. As a result, my time off from work while I was in these places allowed me to continue to travel and explore on my own, often times with little to no expectation or planning. It was as simple as finding a cheap flight and a fun destination and off I went.

A last minute schedule change to give me a week off from a long stretch of work in Tuscany allowed me to hop on a cheap flight to Romania and check out the land of Dracula. Killing time on a layover in Lima resulted in a chance stroll past a ticket counter advertising bargain flights to Buenos Aires so I had no choice but to pull out the credit card and book a flight for later in the summer. When my mom told me that she was going on a work trip to Sweden and I was on biking tours in Spain, I decided that it made perfect sense to squeeze in a trip up to northern Europe before continuing my schedule on the Iberian peninsula.

And so it went again and again and I was able to spend my twenties seeing much of the world and developing an insatiable desire to continue exploring and becoming exposed to different cultures, peoples, and ways of life. In 2008 I had to get extra pages added into my passport to accommodate the flow of visas and stamps I was accumulating and that’s when I came up with a simple life goal for myself: to have the number of countries I’ve visited always be a higher number than my age.

The last international trip before my injury was in January 2012 when I went to Colombia with one of my closest friends. Because it was the 37th country I had visited at that point, I knew I had a few years buffer before my age would catch up but for a long time, my severely weakened physical state as well as the daunting logistical challenges involved in traveling abroad prevented me from fulfilling my ever-present urge to get out into the world. This was the case until recently when Brita and I decided that enough was enough.

After four and a half years of not leaving the good ol’ U S of A, and countless experiences of hiding my envy and jealousy of my friends and family as they regaled me with their stories of travel, the two of us decided to fly almost as far away as possible and spend two weeks in Indonesia.

After allowing my passport to expire three years ago – a virtually unthinkable prospect back in my heyday of globetrotting – I had to trade in my trusty, wrinkled, beat up version with its haphazard stamps and sewn in extra pages for a blank, lonely new passport. When it arrived, I flipped through its empty pages, wondering if and when I could fill it with more country names (recognizing these as gross oversimplified symbols of novel trips) before readying it to get christened on this first adventure.

Gone were the days of stuffing some items into a backpack and carelessly jumping onto a plane with little planning or preparation, knowing that everything would inevitably work out. Nowadays anywhere I go, even if it’s for one night, requires that I meticulously go through a long list of essential items for my health and comfort. Add on to that the unpredictability of where we were going and how easy or difficult every single thing would be, and my packing list was just a little bit more complicated than it used to be, to say the least.

But pack we did, and I grabbed my lonely, blank, rigid passport and smiled at the thought of this new chapter as we headed out…

Next post: A summary and reflection of our trip 

The Donner Party Swim

7:30AM, East end beach, Donner Lake

The morning greeted us with a radiant sun rising up over the high Sierras, its rays cutting through the perfect blue sky and shining strong, reminding us that although fall was only a couple of weeks away, its summer warmth was still in store for the day. 

The swimmers gathered on the shores of Donner, surveying the water, like a sheet of glass stretching almost three miles across the length of the lake. Some, like me, had trained for this day for months, convincing themselves that the frigid water and the 6,000 feet of altitude wouldn’t get the better of them in their attempt to push their limits and accomplish what had seemed previously unfathomable. Others had decided that they would get into the swimming spirit in any way, shape, or form and be out in the open water, itself a significant challenge and accomplishment. And finally, there were all of the friends and family who would cheer and support from a kayak, paddle board or from the dry, rocky, tree lined shore.

Starting the swim, water like glass

I had been worried that the powerful and relentless winds and waves that Brita and I had swam through when we had trained here a month earlier would challenge all of us and make this feat harder, possibly even impossible for me, but thankfully Mother Nature decided to prove me wrong.  

The winds were pleasantly absent, the water was refreshingly cold yet beautifully clear, and the boundless energy and positive spirit of everyone permeated through the smiles and faces of all the swimmers and supporters alike. Even the orange swim caps with our non-profit’s name and logo plastered on the side (a last minute addition to the event that arrived just in time) looked perfect countouring everyone’s heads, marking us all a part of this magical experience which had all started as a crazy idea in my head nine months earlier. 

Quick break to refuel and warm up!

And so it was that after weeks and months of planning and training and visualizing how this would all go down, September 10th was upon me, and this goal within my larger goal of recovery which had consumed and motivated and driven me for so long was now about to be realized… 

I could write volumes about this day, I could share way too many details about everything, about the incredible community that gathered together, all the people who volunteered their time and efforts to make it a smooth and seamless experience, of the serenity of the water as each passing stroke of my arms cut through its stillness and propelled me forward, of the astounding sense of accomplishment I felt upon the completion of swimming those five miles around the lake… 

Suffice it to say that it was one of the best days of my life, one that I will remember forever, and as I think of the collective energy of that wonderful community who showed up, who took the time to drive up to the mountains and be at part of this first of all firsts, I will draw strength and passion and hope for future accomplishments and conquered objectives. And it looks like there’s a good chance that we may do this all again next year…   🙂

Little video capturing some of the awesomeness:

Another anniversary

This morning I woke up a bit unsettled, a bit more tense than usual. I’ve had a heavy feeling all day so far, wondering just how crazy it is that time has passed the way it has.

It was exactly four years ago today that my life changed forever. That three decades of knowing my body in a particular way and understanding how I interact with the world got turned on its head.

In some ways it feels like very little has changed and that it was still only yesterday that I was climbing up mountaintops and biking all over town. I still dream every night that I am walking, running, playing sports (I just dreamt of playing in a competitive soccer game last night) and having access to my body as I’ve always known it. Sometimes I have more vivid dreams with more symbolism and meaning, like walking through my college campus and pushing an empty wheelchair. And I never stop thinking and visualizing of my goal to walk, of wanting so badly to move through the world at six feet tall again. None of it is distant; in fact, it all feels very familiar.

Yet in some ways it feels like four years has been eternity. Four years of waking up with some disappointment every morning, with frustration that my day will include challenges and discomfort and pain that I never thought I’d have to face, but that I have no choice but to meet those challenges head on, deal with them as best as I can and move forward.

I’m not going to lie and say that I’ve gotten used to it. I haven’t. I still don’t think I ever will and that’s fine because that will continue to motivate me. Acceptance can lead to apathy and that’s a dangerous road that I’ve never wanted to take. I know that’s not the path for everyone but it is for me. I can’t help that the fire in me still burns strong. That the frustrations of daily challenges can’t match the even stronger feelings of wanting to overcome those challenges, and wanting to reach my goals. I can’t help that four years of navigating through this very different life has not led to me wanting to throw my hands up and say that the doctors were right.

The truth is, they weren’t right. They said I’d never get to where I am now. My rehab doctor told me that instead of focusing on recovery options outside of the hospital, I should go on a cruise or a vacation with Brita and try to have fun. He told me not to worry too much about my spinal cord healing because it was unlikely that it would.  So even though where I am at this moment is not nearly as far as I want it to be after four years, I can’t help but recognize that it’s only from working my ass off and staying true to my intentions and commitment to my goal that I’ve gotten this far.

I WILL continue to fight. I WILL continue to dream. I WILL continue to have faith that improvements and changes will continue to come, and that I will reach my goals. I know so much more about healing, about healing my own body and recently, I’ve been paying  more attention to healing my mind and spirit. I have come a long way since the first days after this injury when I was struggling just to survive, when making it through a day without a disaster was a cause for celebration. And now, armed with four years of experience, knowledge, triumphs, setbacks, perspective, and a stronger and more determined spirit, I continue to move forward.

And so the journey continues…

Getting out into nature (again)

The beginning of summer has always been a period of excitement for me. The anticipation of what outdoors trips I will take and what new mountains, lakes, rivers, trails and campgrounds I will discover has been a motivating factor to do one of the things I love to do the most in life: get outside and explore nature.

But since my injury, all of this has taken a new meaning. Backpacking on remote trails and high mountain passes have had to take a backseat to my full-time schedule of recovery with the intention and hope to be able to get back out onto those trails one day. Camping weekends are harder to pull off and take more advanced planning when I don’t have the same freedom to dig up all of my gear by myself, pack up the car and hit the road, and have faith that I will work everything out somehow. Spontaneity is difficult to come by since I always need to ensure that I’m not forgetting the many things I need to get through each day, not to mention how to manage my exercise and physical challenges when I’m outside of my usual surroundings.

So far, I would say I’ve made a pretty solid attempt at getting out into nature as much as possible. I’ve gone camping numerous times and reminded myself of that magical, nostalgic smell of a nylon tent, sleeping bag and the surrounding trees. I’ve cross-country skied and made it a few miles out from the nearest parking lot or paved road. And I’ve off-roaded onto some dirt trails (with some pushing help) and challenged the integrity of the wheelchair tires. But none of that has compared to the joy of exploring nature in the water.

As part of my training for working up to a 6-mile swim in September, I’ve become more and more comfortable spending long periods of time in various bodies of water, especially lakes. On a recent trip to Minnesota, to celebrate Brita’s brother’s wedding, we had the fortune of staying at a house that was on one of the state’s 10,000 lakes (it’s not hyperbole, there really are lakes everywhere) and of course, we jumped in and swam around for over an hour each day.

IMG_2188It wasn’t just the bright, translucent, blue water and its perfect temperature (just cool enough to be refreshing but comfortable enough to stay in for a while) or the serenity of the trees and lush green surrounding the lake that I enjoyed, it was the moment of popping my head out of the water and realizing that I was IN nature. I wasn’t a passive observer of the beauty around me, I was an active participant, literally in it. And while it wasn’t as remote as it used to be when I could hike for miles in miles in the mountains, it felt just as profound.

I’m grateful for the fact that Brita has always been a swimmer and thus needs no convincing me from me to get into water. And because we are limited in what physical activities we can fully do together, not only have these swimming adventures fulfilled some of our instincts for nature, but they’ve also allowed us to have another way to spend time together and enjoy each other’s company.

So get out there and enjoy the incredible awesomeness of the outdoors and remember that there can always be new ways to connect with nature and fulfill whatever inner instinct you may have.

Aquaman

Swimming never came naturally to me. Aside from summer camp and pool parties as a child, I spent very little time in the water and always preferred the comraderie and dynamics of playing team sports instead of jumping into a lane and competing individually. When I forced myself to start swimming in my late twenties in order to train for triathlons, it was a sad sight. Although my fitness in running and biking was strong, I could barely last a few minutes in the pool before I was gasping for air. The first few times I begrudgingly got into the olympic sized pool at my graduate school gym, I had to embarrassingly stop and rest after each 25 meter length. 

Almost a year after my injury, I got back into a swimming pool for the first time since those days of triathlon training and I immediately felt comfortable and happy. Although I was in a tiny therapy pool, about twice the size of a hot tub, heated to 93 degrees (most people with Spinal Cord Injuries cannot effectively regulate body temperature so a normal pool is usually too cold), and with two therapists in the water with me, I felt more free than I had at any moment since waking up in a hospital bed in the ICU. 

I didn’t just like the feeling of being weightless and uninhibited by gravity, I adored it. I craved it. And I wanted more. 

Soon after that, I decided that the water therapy with the PT’s was too restrictive and I didn’t want to be confined to a small pool and strict 50 minute time limits. I found a public pool near my house with a lift to get in and out of the water, and I was off. Brita, who had grown up swimming her whole life, was thrilled to be back in the water consistently and we were both overjoyed at the opportunity to share an activity together that could replace the hikes and bike rides we would inevitably be doing otherwise. 

In the beginning, I had to swim in place, on my back, with Brita holding my ankles. Five to ten minutes was more than enough. Thanks to a friend’s suggestion, I bought a snorkel and tried to swim face down but I was too weak to even get my arms out of the water and take a stroke, yet I tried anyways. As I’ve explained here on my blog so many times before, physical progress with anything after a Spinal Cord Injury is painfully slow and so much more tedious and frustrating than able-bodied exercise or training, but I kept at it. Not only because I felt like it was an attainable goal to work towards, but because I was addicted to being in the water, of taking the pressure off my butt, of escaping the hideous reality of sitting in a chair so damn much. 

One day this past December, almost a year and a half after I first got into a pool, I threw off the snorkel and decided that come hell or highwater, I was going to force myself to get my head out of the water, breathe normally and swim freestyle. Serendipitously enough, only two days later, I stumbled upon an open water swim race in June and immediately knew my destiny. Without hesitation, I signed up for the longest option: 2.4 miles, the same distance of an Ironman triathlon. 

This past weekend, with a bit of apprehension but a full head of steam, I got in the lake and completed the swim in just under two hours, a full thirty minutes faster than I was expecting. 
  

While relearning how to walk remains my ultimate goal and primary focus in everything I do, completing this swim has taught me the importance of setting and reaching objectives of varying difficulty. I’ve learned that achieving this goal of swimming a distance that I never expected possible allows me to be even stronger and more determined as I remain focused on my longer, more difficult goal to get back on my feet.

Shortly after my swim, a friend who heard about it congratulated me and said, “hey you’re Aquaman!” I nodded in agreement, knowing that being Aquaman has renewed my faith that no matter how long it takes, I will soon be “Walking Man” again. 

Bow down to the all mighty psoas

Let’s do an exercise. Identify the following muscles in your body, move them, think about how they feel when they’re functioning well compared to the feeling when they’re tight, impaired or injured. Ready? Here we go.

Bicep. No brainer. Do your best body builder pose. Got it?

Calf. Raise up on your toes and feel it contract. Put on some high heels. Maybe it bulges out of the back of your leg, maybe not. Ok, moving on.

Abs. Where’s that six pack? The goal of many a workout. Situps. Lots and lots of situps.

Ok ready for the next one?

Psoas. 

Huh?? What is it? How do you even say that?

Psoas. C’mon, flex it. Now relax it. Stretch it.

But how do you feel it? What does it do? And seriously, how do you pronounce that?

Psoas muscle

Psoas muscle

For many of us, the psoas is a mystery muscle. Most people (yoga addicts, pilates gurus, and fitness fiends aside) have no idea what it is or what it does. From what I’ve learned, it’s only been in the last couple of decades that it’s even reached modest levels of significance.

For me, the connection to my psoas was badly damaged during my injury. Although I’ve regained decent connections to my glutes, quads and hamstrings, and gradually but consistently strengthened my abdominals and core muscles, my ability to use my psoas has eluded me.

Why does this matter? How important can the psoas be?

Extremely important, it turns out.

The psoas is the only muscle that connects the spine to the lower body. It originates in the low back, branching out from the 12th thoracic and all five lumbar vertebrae, sloping down underneath all of the abdominal core muscles, through the pelvis and attaching to the top of the thigh bone. It’s responsible for many things including but not limited to trunk stability, low back flexibility, picking up your leg to take a step, supporting organ function and even breathing. Functionally, one of the reasons we have evolved to standing from being on all fours is the emergence and importance of the psoas.

I’ve known for some time now that strengthening my connection to my psoas is maybe the most essential next step in my recovery, since with even moderate engagement, I would be able to lift my leg and swing it through to take a step.

What I didn’t realize however, was just how significant this muscle is not only functionally and physically but emotionally. As one of the deepest muscles in the body, and as a literal bridge from the trunk and abdomen to the legs and lower body, its importance can’t be understated. Additionally, the psoas is connected (via fascia and connective tissue) to the diaphragm, which is responsible for breathing.

So a quick summary: we’re talking about a single muscle that’s largely involved in walking, keeping your entire trunk and lower spine stable, keeping you alive (by allowing you to breathe), and helping your organs work effectively.

It should come as no surprise then that as soon as I started aggressively targeting and working this muscle in the last week, all kinds of things got stirred up within me. Emotions were whirling at me from nowhere, deep fears were conjured up, and everything within me felt kinda topsy turvy.

Although I had previously heard of the emotional importance of the psoas in particular and the core as a whole (some spiritual practices believe that your soul resides deep in your belly), I honestly didn’t really buy it. Now I admit I was wrong and fully succumb to the power and influence of the psoas.

So be nice to your psoas, stretch it and pay attention to it, cause chances are you have no idea how important it is.