This is the 5th post in a series about my recovery from complications from spinal surgery.
I traveled to Houston for Thanksgiving to spend the holiday with my dad and his wife. This was my first trip of any kind since my surgery in August. We flew on Southwest via Midway and Hobby. My husband had pre-arranged with Southwest for me to have a wheelchair from check-in to the end of the jetway and from the end of the jetway through to baggage claim and where we would meet our ride for each way of the trip. My boarding pass had the code “WCHR’ so I knew that whenever anyone looked at my boarding pass, they knew we had a legit need for a wheelchair. At Midway, I had a short wait fro someone to arrive with a wheelchair. When I arrived at Hobby, I had a wheelchair waiting for me as soon as I got off the plane. However, I was told we would have to wait if we wanted the employee to take us beyond the gate, but he could not say how long he would be, so Jim opted to wheel me himself. We loaded my cane, walker, and purse into my lap and away we went. Jim parked me outside on a bench while he went to get our checked suitcase. The trip to Houston went pretty smoothly. Coming from Houston to Chicago was a bit less smooth, though. We waited probably half an hour for someone to come with a wheelchair after checking our bag, and when we landed in Chicago, I had to wait on the plane for about 15 minutes for a wheelchair, and then I was told we would have to wait again for someone to take us through to baggage claim. There were a bunch of us lined up waiting for transport. Jim just grabbed me and we left. I stopped in the bathroom and on the way out, we snagged an employee to take us through to where we would pick up our Uber to go home. I learned that if you need a wheelchair at the airport, you are 100% at the whim of all sorts of other people to get where you need to go.
I had no real issues going through security. I couldn’t walk through the metal detector with my cane so they gave me a TSA cane (clear plastic) to use, but I couldn’t use that either because it was just a regular, single cane. I did not think it would offer me the stability I need. So I got wheeled through and had my hands and chair swabbed and had a patdown in the wheelchair. It did not take long — but full disclosure: I have TSA Pre-Check.
I will admit some annoyance at having to use the bathroom, though. Let me first say that I completely understand that not all disabilities are visible. I should also share that the regular bathroom stalls at both Midway and Hobby are large enough to fit a person and carry-on luggage. The first time at Midway, I had to wait for the handicapped stall. A woman came out in pretty high heels, carrying a large purse and using a carry-on bag. The second time at Midway, I had to wait again. This time, the woman a large backpack on her back and a purse and a carry-on bag. The one time I used the bathroom at Hobby, I also had to wait for the handicapped stall. A flight attendant emerged with her small purse and carry-on bag. I can also tell you that each time I entered the bathrooms in these cases, there were many available regular stalls. So you draw the conclusions you want; I’ve already drawn mine.
For both flights, I was in the preboard group. You would think that is a sweet deal, especially on Southwest where they don’t have assigned seats. But if I am being honest, all I felt was conspicuous. I felt almost guilty. I wanted to tell people, “I normally board with the rest of you, and I sure wish I could now.” I just felt all these people’s eyes on me as a Southwest employee wheeled me over to the jetway. I just hate sticking out; I prefer to just blend in with the crowd, and I definitely did not at the airport.
One thing I have noticed with my condition is the feeling of almost needing to defend myself. Every time we pull into a handicapped parking space or I get some sort of special or preferential treatment, I feel like I need to somehow prove that yes, I am indeed in need of that parking space or assistance, that I’m not faking it or milking a situation or embellishing my current level of disability. The feeling I get is a little like guilt, a little like shame. I wonder if that’s some sort of prejudice I’m not conscious of in myself, being judgmental of people. Maybe I really am (see above paragraph about the bathrooms). I never thought I was like that, but maybe it’s something I need to work on.
Anyway, travelling in this condition isn’t easy. It required being comfortable with being dependent on others, and I am very independent, so I feel bad when I have to get help from others. Hopefully for my next flight, I’m more independent. Time will tell.