Yesterday, as I wheeled through fallen autumn leaves, my tires flicking acorns into the air, I flashed back to another fall, far from northern Michigan.
I was 18, newly paralyzed and spending countless hours in physical therapy at the University of Michigan medical center. For several months, my physical therapist, an extremely muscular and demanding young woman was my constant companion.
As I became stronger and more adept at using my wheelchair, she took me from the hospital into downtown Ann Arbor. Atop steep hills, she would tell me to go downhill by myself.
“I can’t do it!” These hills are too scary I shrieked at her. “Can’t I just ask someone for help if I’m ever in this situation?”
“No, you can’t just depend upon other people,” she yelled back.
“Why not? I know people will help me. Is this the best use of my energy?” I questioned sarcastically.
“I want you to promise me that you will not ask for help or depend upon others, unless there is no other way. You must be able to navigate on your own. Help will not always be available to you. You don’t know this now, but you will learn it soon enough. It’s crucial to your emotional and physical survival that you care for your life. All of it,” she said.
I was enormously angry with her and thought I had little control over my new life. So, I said back to her the most hurtful thing I could think of.
“Did it ever occur to you that if it weren’t for people with disabilities like me, you wouldn’t even have a job? I may have a disability, but I’m fundamental to your employment!”
“That’s true and right now we need each other,” she said. “My job is to assist you in becoming self-sufficient and not needing me. You’re learning to ask for help that frees you, not traps you. I suggest you stop whining and get back to the top of that hill. We’re going to keep practicing this until you can safely maneuver by yourself,” she said.
And that’s what I did.
Flash forward to today.
After pushing a manual wheelchair for more than 35 years, my shoulders are giving out. There have been times when I have left home and not been able to get myself to my destination. Some of these changes I’ve seen coming and yet it hasn’t made them any less terrifying.
What to do? I didn’t need and wasn’t ready for an electric wheelchair. Shoulder surgery may be in my future, but not right now. So, I decided to try a power assist wheelchair. The wheelchair can be pushed like a manual wheelchair and has a motor on it, when you need it. When the motor is on, one push sends the wheelchair about eight feet forward. The first time my husband and I tried taking a walk together using this wheelchair, he had to run to keep up with me! There’s a sharp learning curve to using this wheelchair. It’s an option, albeit not a perfect one.
After all of these years, my physical therapist was right. It’s my life. One full of hills. I have to do it myself. That includes determining when and how I need help.