Saturday, December 30, 2006

Way Up North In Atlanta

On Sunday, Christmas Eve morning around 7:00 am, we got into the car for our trip to Atlanta. This was preceded by some agonizing over which car to take. My wife found the sedan provided a comfortable ride, but was difficult to enter and exit. The van was easy for her to get in and out, but the seating was less comfortable. Because I have a pretty good eye for 3-dimensional puzzles, I made the decision to take the van, because we had to take a gigantic pile of stuff with us, including the wheelchair, the commode, the office chair and our suitcases – plus we would be bringing our daughter and her suitcases back with us.

Once we got on the road, the comfort issue seemed to vanish.

The drive was brisk and easy, because anyone who was traveling that weekend had left on Saturday. In Georgia, I was puzzled by the roadside fences lining I-75. Typically, these were 4-inch steel mesh with metal poles. But every hundred feet or so, the metal poles were replaced by wood, with crossbeams, forming a kind of double “H” shape:

This is the kind of thing that drives me crazy. Someone had gone to a lot of trouble and expense, creating thousands of these wooden structures along the highway, and yet I could not figure out their purpose. Were they a kind of stile, enabling humans to clamber over the fence in emergencies? They did not appear to have hinges, but possibly they were gates, enabling firefighting equipment to access woods and fields from the highway. So I called the Georgia Department of Transportation and was only transferred three times by confused, irritable office workers until I got the answer, provided by one of the GDOT engineers. Drop me a line if you want to know.

In Atlanta, we stayed at the home of my wife’s aunt, a delightful, warm woman. She had bought us tickets to the Atlanta Aquarium, billed as the largest in the world. She said, “It’s Christmas day, so there shouldn’t be many people there.”

Unfortunately, she was wrong. The place was mobbed. A sign directed people into two lines of Disney-style switchbacks: “Previous Reservations” and “Purchase Tickets.” We got into the “Previous Reservations” line, which meandered around slowly in a freezing drizzle. Then, for reasons that can only be explained by the geniuses running the place, the two lines merged, forcing wet, shivering families to fight for a place in line.

Once inside, we discovered that wheelchairs are not respected by people who are not confined to them. When we were waiting for an opportunity to see a display, I had to leave about a foot between the wheelchair and the heels of the person in front of us, or they might back up, trip and fall into my wife’s lap. But once you leave that gap, someone will step into it as though the wheelchair doesn’t exist. My wife found the umbrella was an effective tool for defending her personal space.

The displays were in some cases breathtaking, clearly on a par with the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The Atlanta Aquarium has an enormous tank holding FOUR Whale Sharks, the world’s largest fish. Other tanks held Beluga Whales, Sea Otters, Sea Lions, coral reef fish, freshwater fish and jellyfish.

It was chilly in Atlanta, which sits on that boundary between the cold-weather northern states and the mild south. So they get a chilly winter, and on rare occasions, snow. My wife’s aunt told me that her neighbor actually bought a snow-making machine, so that they could cover the yard with artificial snow on cold nights and their kids could go sledding.

My wife’s aunt was dog-sitting for her son’s dog, Blossom. Blossom likes to pre-sanitize the dinner dishes by licking them in the dishwasher before they’re washed, removing any last traces of sticky egg yolk or smears of grease.

When we left on Wednesday, traffic was bumper-to-bumper, stop-and-go all the way to Macon. It took us 2 hours just to drive to the outskirts of Atlanta. Fortunately, the roads opened up and we made good time the rest of the way, but it was a long time in the car and we’re all grateful to be home.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

The Active Invalid

My wife is slowly learning to live within her limitations. The limitations of being able to use only one arm. The limitations of being able to use only one leg. The limitations of being able to take Percoset only once every 6 hours.

She is now scooting around the house quite successfully on the office chair, which means she has some mobility. But she has to scoot backwards, pushing with her good leg, so the price of this mobility is that her good leg is now burning with the effort. She has to lift her body out of chairs and car seats using her good arm. By the time this is over, she’s going to look like a steroid freak on her right side and like limp spaghetti on the left.

Once my wife is sitting immobile in a chair, or lying in bed, she feels pretty good, almost perky. A friend came to visit and stayed a couple of nights, so we went out to eat. My wife wanted to go to Outback Steakhouse, but I vetoed that because she can’t cut up a steak using only one arm. She hadn’t thought of that, so we went out for nice mushy Italian food.

Yesterday, I put our daughter on a plane for Atlanta to visit a relative. The original plan was that we would drive up later, stay a couple of days, and we’d all drive back. We agonized over whether my wife could make the trip, but she feels pretty comfortable in a car, because of the support offered by the seat. So the plan is, we’ll drive up to Atlanta on Christmas day, despite my misgivings about her ability to use the facilities at rest stops along the way. If necessary, I’ll just wheel her in myself and hope the women inside are not armed.

A friend helped us find two bedside commodes, which are far superior to the stupid camp toilet I found at Wal-Mart. So she’s able to go to the bathroom whenever she needs to, without any help, even in the middle of the night. I returned the camp toilet to Wal-Mart today, assuring the suspicious lady at the Customer Service desk that it had not been used.

The commode collection.

So I’ve been doing a lot of running around, usually pushing a wheelchair, and all of the household chores are now my responsibility. So my aged creaky knees are inflamed, and I’m forbidden to touch the Percoset.

I have received permission to publish these pictures of my wife’s injuries. She has large ugly bruises on both arms, but strangely, the broken ankle hardly looks different than the good one. She keeps it in this AirBoot gizmo that comes with a little pump so you can inflate it or deflate it, immobilizing her ankle joint. I wonder if they make those things for knee joints?

The unbroken right arm.

The seriously broken left arm.

The AirBoot.

The inflator/deflator.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

My Gubernatorial Platform

On Sunday, my wife and I managed to sleep away most of the morning. Her recent injury made it hard for her to get comfortable in bed, so there was a lot of fussing with pillows. Eventually, the Percoset kicked in and she slept well.

Because her ankle is broken, she can’t walk. Because her shoulder is broken, she can’t use crutches. Sooner or later, she was going to have to visit the bathroom, so she sent me off to her school to borrow a wheelchair from the clinic. By the time I got home with it, she was just about ready to burst.

So she painfully elevated herself from the bed, swung around and gingerly settled into it for the short ride. We approached the bathroom door and discovered something ugly about Florida building codes. It seems that normal household doors are 30 inches wide, which accommodates most sizes of people and a typical wheelchair, which is 26 inches wide. However, in Florida, bathroom doors need only be 24 inches wide. This makes them a tight squeeze for extra-large people and an impossible barricade for wheelchairs.

A normal door.

A narrow bathroom door.

We panicked, but eventually came up with a workable strategy. It seems that an ordinary desk chair with casters on the legs can fit through a 24-inch door. My wife sits in the chair, and I pull her through the bathroom door. She’s able to use the bathroom and then I pull her back out. Unfortunately, the lush pile carpeting that feels so delightful on bare feet drags at the chair casters in such a way that I must strain to move her. She helps by pushing with her good foot, but it’s still an effort. It’s too late for me to run for Governor in 2006, but just wait. I’m going to have those building codes changed, and I’m sure I’ll have a lot of support from the vast, wheelchair-bound elderly constituency in Florida.

The bathroom express.

We called the orthopedic surgeon first thing this morning and after waiting on hold, we were told his first appointment was tomorrow. My wife was outraged, demanding to know how they could send someone home from the emergency room with broken bones and expect them to wait 2 days for treatment. I printed out a list of orthopedic surgeons on her health plan, and she found one who agreed to see her today, at 11:00 in Orange City, which is about an hour’s drive. She told me this proudly, and I looked at the clock, noticing that it was 10:30, and we still had to swing by the hospital to pick up her X-rays. She said, “So we’ll be late. So what?” This is a fundamental difference between my wife and I, one that will never be resolved.

The orthopedic surgeon turned out to be a nice guy, who gave my wife one of those high-tech space boots that has Air Jordan pumps on either side. He told her sternly, “Don’t put any weight on it for at least 2 weeks and we’ll see how it’s doing. If you’re not careful, I’ll have to put plates and screws into it.” As for the shoulder, he told her that there’s no way to immobilize it. She has to keep it in a sling and it will either heal or it won’t. Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible keep from bumping it or jarring it unless she takes a lot more Percoset and just drools in bed for the next month.

He gave us a prescription for a wheelchair and a bedside commode (so that she won’t have to make the bathroom trip by herself if I’m not there). And more Percoset, of course.

The wheelchair prescription turned out to be something of a joke, though. He prescribed a very special kind of wheelchair, with a unique axle enabling it to be operated by someone with the use of only one arm. Do you know what car salesmen do when they’re so hideous and incompetent that they can’t even sell cars? They sell wheelchairs. I made a couple of calls and was told that those wheelchairs are very expensive, have to be specially-ordered, and will take 6 to 8 weeks to arrive. Which means that by the time we got it, my wife won’t need it.

I found a place that sells bedside commodes, but they want $95 for them, and insurance won’t pay for them. So I went to Wal-Mart and picked up a camping toilet for $22. Call me cheap if you must, but she’ll thank me when she has to use it.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

The Evil Pump Genie

Years ago, we owned a house in Boston that was in a kind of depression, sitting lower in the neighborhood than other houses. Shortly after we moved in, a Catholic church up on a hill nearby paved an acre of their property, thoughtfully angling the pavement in such a way that rainwater ran off down the hill, directly into our yard.

Boston is in a part of the country where rainstorms drift in, hang around for three or four days sprinkling the area with a modest drizzle, and then float lazily out to sea. The rainfall was usually light enough that you could walk two blocks without an umbrella and barely get wet. However, once in awhile, a tropical depression would slide up the coast, dumping torrents of rain on the city. When this happened, a sloshing stream of water would flow off the parking lot, filling up our low-lying driveway, and flood the basement. It took a couple of years of legal threats before the church installed storm drains in the parking lot, which pretty much cleared up the problem In the meantime, I bought a portable sump pump.

Whenever it rained hard enough to worry me, I’d break out the pump, slosh through the puddle in my driveway, drop the pump in the lowest point and run the hose out to the street. Sometimes this worked, and sometimes the pump just couldn’t keep up, and we’d spend a week drying out the basement.

When we decided to move to Florida, we thought about selling the pump, but I knew that tropical storms were a regular occurrence in Florida, so we decided to keep it just in case. But we soon discovered that Florida has had lots of experience with tropical storms, and neighborhoods are well-drained. So the pump has been sitting in our attic for a decade.

Recently, a friend of ours told us she was going to have a yard sale, and wondered if we wanted to participate. We discussed the many useless objects we owned, and agreed that the pump has fallen into that category.

There are many variations on the story of Aladdin, but my favorite is the one where the genie was imprisoned in the lamp by a sorcerer, where he remained for 1000 years. During this time, the genie vowed generous rewards to whoever should release him. But over time, the bitterness of his imprisonment turned him against mankind, and he swore to kill whoever let him out of the lamp.

As our pump sat idle in the attic all those years, the genie inside must have undergone a similar transformation. It must have made a chilling decision when it overheard us talking about our plans for the yard sale.

In Florida, storage space is hard to find. Attics are usually accessed by a narrow pull-down ladder between the joists in the garage. Usually, the homeowner buys some plywood and creates a semblance of a floor, on which boxes of Christmas decorations, empty suitcases, unused furniture, childhood memorabilia and other junk is piled in huge, unstable towers.

My wife climbed up the ladder and began sorting through the lifetime accumulation of crap that everybody thinks they will want someday, but which usually becomes a burden for their children to dispose of after their death. She handed down a series of items, including a cane chair with a giant hole in the seat, a trash bag containing a Queen-size egg-crate foam pad that we used to spread on the futon whenever someone would visit (because the futon mattress was like sleeping on bags of QuickCrete), and other bric-a-brac. Eventually, she came across the box containing the pump.

I stood on the attic ladder, and my wife pushed the heavy cardboard box across the flooring to me. I grabbed the box, and executed a pirouette on the attic ladder, so that I could descend facing outward, holding the box in front of me, my behind bumping from rung to rung. You probably think you know what happened next, but you don’t.

My wife returned to her rummaging, as I gingerly stepped down the first rung of the ladder. Suddenly, I heard a loud crash. I was holding the box in front of my face, so I lowered it a bit to look into the attic. I didn’t see my wife, so I demanded to know what had toppled over. Hearing no answer, I lowered the box a bit more, so that I could see across the ceiling of the garage. There, in front of my eyes was a hole the size of my wife. I lowered the box a bit more, and saw her, lying on the garage floor, gasping for breath.

Somehow, I stumbled down the ladder and dropped the pump box. My wife was obviously in pain. She had stepped off the plywood flooring onto the sheetrock that composed the ceiling, which cannot support that kind of weight. She broke through and miraculously landed on the trash bag holding the rolled up foam rubber pad. But she had struck something on her way down and couldn’t move her left arm, or stand on her left foot.

She was able to hobble to my car and I drove her to the hospital. It was about 10 pm. We were swiftly ushered into an emergency room, where she was examined by a Physician’s Assistant and given Percoset for the pain. After several hours, she was taken away for a painful set of X-rays. She had broken the ball joint in her left shoulder and a bone in her ankle, which at this point may require surgery to correct.

We were in the emergency room until 6:30 the following morning, watching reruns of Deal or No Deal. A combination of our confinement and sleep deprivation made me bitter and angry, to the point where I swore I would kill the next medical professional who promised to take care of our needs “in a few minutes.”

The wife-sized hole.

The landing pad.

The contents of the landing pad.

The home of the evil pump