Learning Independence

Part of rehab at the GF Strong rehab centre is learning how to be independent. This in itself can be quite a trial as I learned the hard way. I lived on the 2nd floor at GF Strong and my therapy was on the 1st floor. That meant taking the elevator to go up and down, which meant had to have a nurse to help me get back and forth.

The elevator doors at GF Strong. Note the entirety of the metal plate acts as a button for patients in wheelchairs

The elevators were set up for people in wheelchairs. You would go in one door on one end of the elevator and then when you arrived at your floor a door at the opposite end would open up and you would drive right out. That way you didn’t have to turn around in the elevator or back out. It was really handy. As well, to go along with the normal elevator buttons, there were vertical bars about 3 feet tall located outside the elevators. One was for the up button and the other was for the down button. So someone like me who can’t use their arms could simply run into the bar with their wheelchair and call for the elevator to go up or down. As well inside the elevator there were buttons for each floor plus an emergency call button. The goal was to make the elevators accessible to all. There were 3 such elevators at GF Strong. 2 were quite large and could accommodate 4 wheelchairs while the 3rd elevator was much smaller and could only accommodate 2 wheelchairs.

I had finally reached the point where I felt I could go to therapy on my own. So I decided I would use the elevator by myself. As I was new to driving a wheelchair and using a sip and puff driving apparatus my control of the wheelchair wasn’t very good. A sip and puff is a system where I either blow or suck in air through a straw to control my wheelchair. Depending on whether I sip or puff through the straw and for how long will move the wheelchair forward or back, left or right. It can be a challenge at the best of times.

So I managed to manoeuvre myself to call the elevator to go down to therapy. Then I had to get myself in position to enter 1 of the 3 doors that will open up. That in itself is a challenge as you never know which elevator will arrive and when. Then you have a short amount of time to get into the elevator before the doors close; it’s a bit of a race. I was hoping it would be 1 of the large elevators that came and not the small elevator since that would allow me to manoeuvre more easily inside the elevator to press the right bar to go to the 1st floor.

Of course it was the small elevator that arrived. However, I couldn’t manoeuvre into the elevator quickly enough before the doors closed. So back to the switch bars to call for the elevator again. It must’ve been a small amount of time because the small elevator’s doors opened again, it hadn’t moved from the second floor. This time I managed to get into the elevator before the doors closed. Now I was trying to hit the correct button for the 1st floor. With limited space inside I was trying to turn my wheelchair to kick the bar with my foot. This is harder than it sounds. I’m trying to turn a little sideways and hit it with a glancing blow. The bar was halfway along the wall so I had to turn quite a bit to hit the bar. Before I knew it I was turned completely sideways, unable to hit the bar and unable to move. I was so frustrated I had tears running down my face. My attempt at independence was failing miserably, and of course no one is calling the elevator so I’m stuck there, unable to move.

Inside the elevator at GF Strong

Inside the elevator at GF Strong

Suddenly the door opened and Austin called out and asked how I was doing. Austin was another quadriplegic, a young guy whose neck was broken when he and his friends were pretending to be wrestlers. At a young age he was really struggling with his predicament, but at that point he was my saviour. He told me that he would jam the doors with his wheelchair while I got myself straightened out. This took a little bit of time and he was very patient waiting for the old guy. Once I was facing in the right direction he rolled in behind me. He had enough movement in his arms to press the button for the 1st floor and down we went. We both rolled out of the elevator and I was finally on my way. My attempt at independence was a quasi-success.

Over the months I became quite adept at using the elevators on my own. I switched from a sip and puff control system to a head array system which I use today. I will write about some of my sip and puff experiences in another post.

My life goes on and to this day I am thankful to Austin for rescuing me from my elevator independence expedition.