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Life and Travel After Spinal Cord Injury

In late 2015, I climbed the ladder, not the literal version associated with one’s career path, but the physical one that all middle-aged men like me should avoid. The resultant fall ended badly with compression of C3 and C4 in the upper spinal cord and a diagnosis of long-term quadriplegia. So the last three years of my life have provided more challenges than ever before, but with a mountain of inspirational support from my darling wife and family together with ongoing positive prognosis from a whole range of rehabilitation therapists, I am today in a far better position, both physically and mentally.

My initial six months in the Spinal Unit of the Princess Alexandra Hospital had both positive and negative outcomes. Mental acceptance of what had happened, particularly at my stage of life, was very difficult. On the other hand, having immediate access to rehabilitation was able to shift my focus from what had happened to my new life. During that rehabilitation, I quickly learned just how much our body relies on the functionalities of the spinal cord. Three years down the track and I can excitedly say I am walking with the aid of a walker and beginning to regain strength and nerve sensitivity in areas that previously have been numb. Irrespective what you hear and what you read, rehabilitation is possible depending on your attitude and level of determination.

The physiotherapists had me standing with support within four months. Morna and I are “middle-aged”, so in the interests of protecting our wonderful relationship, expecting her to push a manual wheelchair was off the table. Therefore, the power chair has played an important part in my day-to-day life, including our travel activities.

I still rely on a Quantum Q6 Edge 2.0 power chair around home; but when it came to travel, I realised the most comfortable option could not be transported and was unsuitable for travel. Consequently, in the early days when we started to travel, we did take a support worker and together we would go through the assembling and disassembling of a manual chair, say goodbye to it at airport check-in, and then have to endure those horribly designed airport chairs from check-in through to boarding and right through to the luggage carousel at the destination. Not easy for us youngsters!

So we searched high and low for a suitable travel power chair. We found so many options, some with whistles and bells and each in their own right, addressing comfort, and compactness. In hindsight and from our experience, we strongly suggest you choose your power chair based on your functional and comfort expectations.

We eventually decided on the “Leitner” brand manufacture and purchased a product called “Frankie”. It is a lightweight portable chair that when assembled, it is 101cm long, 58cm wide and 93cm high (at top of backrest). The width across the sitting area is 46 cm. The distance from the top of the cushion to the ground is 48 cm. I have found this considerably lower than my power chair. This may not be an inconvenience for most, but in my case (I can now sit/stand), the closeness to the ground requires a little bit of extra effort.

For airline requirements, “Frankie” folds into a stroller size package which is 78 cm long, 58 cm wide and 37 cm high. “Frankie” weighs a mere 25 kg without the batteries, and 28 kg when the 2 lithium batteries are fitted.

I stay in the chair right up to the door of the aircraft. At this point, Morna removes the lithium batteries and the hand control and carries them on with no cost penalty.

Removal of the lithium batteries is compulsory, whilst we remove the hand control to avoid it being damaged. It is a simple step of unplugging it, and removing it from a socket in the arm. The hand control can be fitted to either left or right arm. These specifications are all needed by the airlines at time of booking. The use of lithium batteries is normally a mandatory requirement of the airline when travelling with a power chair. Once you describe the lithium batteries, the airline will most likely issue the dangerous goods certificate. Our dangerous goods certificate is valid for 12 months.

We travel almost exclusively now with Qantas. We have tried a range of options out of the Gold Coast airport, but found it impractical and stressful to us both to use cut-price alternatives. When you choose your airline, keep in mind that cut-price airline fares rely heavily on reduced overheads. Time on the ground between flights and ground crew costs are minimised to sustain the cut-price fare, hence service is compromised. Being herded like cattle is not a good fit without airport assistance when you and your partner are travelling with disability.

Our chair has received rave reviews from Qantas ground crew around Australia. We recently flew from Melbourne to Launceston in a De Havilland Dash 8 aircraft. Walking across the tarmac in Launceston, the ground crew were eager to personally assemble our “Frankie” as they stated it was the most compact chair they had ever seen. They absolutely adored the 25 kg weight and the fold down foot rest, which becomes the carry handle.

The lightweight style of the chair is designed purely for travel. It is not “all-terrain”, consequently the suspension is lighter, the tyres have a narrower ply, and the seating is comfortable but not luxurious. For instance, we encountered difficulty at Cradle Mountain (Tasmania), where access from your cabin to the main dining room is by tracks, the majority of which are constructed using lightly compacted gravel. Most of the walking tracks in Cradle Mountain are also constructed of the same material.

In summary, “Frankie” is a fit for purpose, lightweight travel chair, but care should be taken not to change the purpose of the chair, and expect it to still deliver the goods.

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