Saturday, May 13, 2006

Sip ‘N Puff

Thankfully, I have some mobility because of my “Breath Control Wheelchair.” Christopher Reeve—Superman—had one exactly like mine.  Some call it a “Sip and Puff Wheelchair” because that is how it is controlled. Because I have zero movement in my head or neck, my only alternative is this type of chair.

Living in a wheelchair, after having been a "normal walking around person” for most of my life, presents some interesting challenges. I initially felt very self-conscious in my new wheelchair lifestyle whenever I would go out in public. For instance, when I go outside I like to wear a ball hat, but Jo Anne will hardly ever let me because she says it makes me look too conspicuous.

Also, the perceptions of little children regarding me in a wheelchair are very interesting. Their comments are always right on target. A little four-year-old nephew who had not seen me since my accident was mesmerized by my condition. He wanted to know why I couldn't walk and so I went into an in-depth explanation about how my spinal cord had been severed. Just as I was concluding my discourse, he impatiently asked, "Well, can you crawl?" His little baby sister was doing just that on the floor near by and he screamed at her and said, "You better get out of the way or he will squash you!"

A while back, we were meeting some of our children and grandchildren at a Mexican restaurant. When our daughter informed our three-year-old granddaughter that they were meeting us to eat tacos, she piped up and said, "Grandpa can't eat tacos--his hands are stuck! Even his feet are stuck! Why his whole body is stuck in that wheelchair!"

A few months after my accident, we ventured over to the local elementary school to see our youngest daughter in a little program. As I was rolling across the playground to the parking lot, all of a sudden I was surrounded by a group of five-year-olds. Five-year-olds are the most inquisitive and uninhibited creatures on this earth. The questions started coming: "Hey Mr., what happened to you? What were you doing at the beach anyway? What is that hose for, and what does this button do?" I was starting to get very nervous and wanted to leave, but a little boy who had been standing near me got real close and looking into my eyes said, "Hey Mr., what happened to your face?" "My face, I thought, was the only part of me that was halfway normal and was still working!" I tried to run over the kid!

Some time ago I received my third new chair since my accident.  Each chair has been much better than the previous model, which is the case with my new one.  I have adapted to it very quickly, thankfully. A wheelchair for somebody in my condition really becomes an extension of their body.

I control my chair by giving commands through sipping and puffing on a hard plastic straw held between my teeth that activates micro switches, which in turn control all the functions of the chair.

I also have a little display by my left hand which enables me to see in which mode the chair is operating.  I have four different drive modes that have been custom programmed by a computer to meet my specific needs and desires.  My first drive mode I call "The Church Drive."  I designed it to be very gentle going forward or backward and especially as I turn right or left. Drive 2 I call my "All-purpose Drive." I had it programmed to go faster than Drive 1 in all directions and yet it is safe enough to use at Church or at home and other places.  Drive 3 I call "Ramming Speed." It is strictly an outdoor mode in which I can flat-out move.  I use it driving to the park for example or in Costco.  There is enough kid still in me to enjoy letting it go full blast and then seeing how tight I can turn it.  All of you without wheelchairs are really missing out on a lot of fun.  Drive 4 is the attendant control Drive.  Jo Anne operates it and so I had it programmed to be gentler than the "Church Drive," as a life preserving (my life) and precautionary measure.

The chair is a new concept created by Invacare Corp. They won many engineering awards for its design. It has six wheels--two small ones in front and in back and then two larger wheels at the right and left center of the chair.  It is called a “Center Wheel Drive.”  It has great stability and the back two wheels even have shocks to make the ride more comfortable. My particular model allows me to also tilt and recline, which comes in handy during some church meetings. The make of my wheelchair is "Storm TDX 3."  That name alone is enough to just get my blood pumping.  The only problem I have with the wheelchair is that it is much smarter than I am.

Although each new chair is better and safer than the previous one, if I am not careful, I can still run into things, over things, and off of stairs and curbs.   I always have to remember to be alert, careful, take nothing for granted, and not get lulled into a sense of false security while driving about.  I am just an accident waiting to happen.

My first chair seemed to have a lot of safety issues. If I hit a bump in the road or sidewalk it would disconnect the sip and puff mechanism preventing me from controlling the chair. It would be like driving a car 50 miles an hour without being able to steer it or apply the brakes to stop it -- very frightening!

On one occasion, Jo Anne and I went to Sea World in San Diego to attend a social with some of our colleagues. Driving in my chair from the parking lot to the restaurant, I had to maneuver my way over some rough cobblestone lanes. As we arrived at the entrance to the restaurant, Jo Anne, walking in front of me, entered the main area. I was unable to follow her because, at that very moment, I realized that the sip and puff connection had become disconnected.  Unable to change modes, I started rolling down a long hallway at the end of which was a long flight of stairs. Unable to stop my chair I knew I was going to roll down them and end my mortal life. I hate to admit it, but I panicked and instead of screaming "Help," I started screaming "Jo Anne, Jo Anne!" Just before I got to the stairs a good friend of mine came up out of the stairwell, heard my cries for Jo Anne, read the panic on my face, observed the situation and grabbed my wheelchair and pushed it into the wall where it continued to grind away. Others heard my cries for Jo Anne and she soon appeared on the scene to turn off the chair. It was, to say the least, a very harrowing experience.

I enjoy driving around our neighborhood in my wheelchair.  One evening, Jo Anne and I were out rolling – me in my first generation chair and she on her bicycle. I went over a bump in the road and it caused me to lose control of the chair as I had at Sea World.  I hollered at Jo Anne, but before she could get to me and hit the “kill switch” (which is designed to stop the chair immediately -- isn’t that a nice name for someone in my predicament), the chair turned up a driveway and crashed into the back of a new Thunderbird.  This not only stopped the chair, but the impact also caused the chair to be wedged into the bumper in such a way that neither I nor Jo Anne could get it loose.  Needing help, she was forced to go knock on the owner’s door.  A large man opened it and Jo Anne said, "My husband just ran into your new Thunderbird!" He growled and came running out of the house. He was caught so off guard seeing me in my paralyzed state with my wheelchair stuck to the back of his beautiful red Thunderbird, that he was speechless.  Finally he took action and was able to dislodge my chair.  Fortunately the damage was minimal for both of us and he seemed happy to just see us continue on our way. 

Another potential disaster was the day I was tooling down the hallway in our Church.  Without warning, a door suddenly opened in front of me and a huge seeing-eye dog with his blind master entered the hallway. The dog, upon seeing me rolling toward his master at top speed, went ballistic trying to save him from impending danger. The blind man, in shock and total confusion, wanted to know what was happening.  Fortunately, I was able to stop before running over the dog and knocking this good man down.   Jo Anne quickly explained the situation and assured him that all was well.  I can't recall Jo Anne saying anything comforting or kind to me -- I wonder why?  Thankfully, no harm was done and we didn’t get sued.  I could just see the headlines, “Paralyzed man in wheelchair driving at a reckless speed runs over blind man.”

  Thankfully, there are still technicians who know how to fix the chair--I hope I don't outlive them all. How blessed I am that there are people in the world that are talented and trained and have the desire to invent wonderful creations that bless and improve the quality of our lives. 

I probably shouldn't write what I'm going to write next.  I'm sure Jo Anne will submit my name and some of my escapades to the following website I recently found on Google called "A Darwin's Award."  It is "A Chronicle of Enterprising Demises or near demises honoring those who improve the accidentally removing themselves from it!" [Google]

For example, one incident that almost received the top "Darwin Award" a few years ago is as follows: two young men living in Wisconsin went ice fishing for the first time.  It was bitterly cold and they were ill prepared for this event.  They had all their gear in the back of a beautiful brand-new red truck along with their faithful dog.  Although they had a special saw to make a hole in the ice they thought it would take too long and so they got the brilliant idea of blowing a hole in the ice with a stick of dynamite.  One of the young men lit the stick of dynamite and threw it as far as he could.  The dog, thinking this was a fun game ran after it, retrieved it, and started running back toward the truck as fast as he could.  They tried to wave the dog off, but the more they waved and shouted the faster he came toward them.  Just as he got to the truck he slipped, slid under the truck, and the dynamite exploded.  The only happy thing about this story, I'm afraid to report, is that the two young men were able to save themselves--wish I could say the same about the truck and the dog.

I believe that all of us have probably done something to qualify for a Darwin Award sometime during our lives.  Just as I have to be constantly on the alert when driving my wheelchair so as not to injure myself or somebody else, I believe this principle applies to all of us in a physical way.

When we become careless in our spiritual drive through life, we can lose control and get off the narrow path and in the process destroy ourselves and possibly many loved ones as well.  We need to be careful never to be candidates for a spiritual Darwin's award."

Just as I always have to remember to be alert, careful, take nothing for granted, and not get lulled into a sense of false security while driving my wheelchair, so I must also be equally as careful in my spiritual drive through life.


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