My Week In A Wheelchair: A New Lesson In Resilience?

Photo of Access via Wheelchair, understanding disability and access issues.The weirdness continues…

This summer seems to be a season of firsts.

Never came face to face in a battle for territory with raccoon before; never thought about human rights in this way before; certainly have never been “disabled” before.

I wrote in my last post about each issue having more than one point of view, but no clear-cut right answer.

In this post, I’m sharing a new challenge: My lesson in understanding life from another’s point of view.

What if I had been able to write from that pesky raccoon’s perspective, what would I have understood?

What if I had been able to experience the deprivations of being a slave, what would I have said to you?

Today I actually get such an opportunity, to write from an alternate perspective and tell you what it feels like. Cool… or not- No, it’s more like frustration city this week.

I took a nasty tumble in my garden last week as I was doing some post-bloom clean-up. Seems I tripped over something and snapped my ankle sideways, fell on my knee and my shoulder, planting myself face-first onto the concrete walkway. The only thing I didn’t whack badly actually was my head, thankfully.

My husband had come home about 10 minutes before all this happened, so I didn’t have to lay there like some “Help! I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” commercial. The neighbors heard too, so everyone was in a panic.

After my visit to the Emergency Room at the local hospital, after all the X-Rays and scans, it was determined that I had indeed broken my right foot, damaged the rotator cuff in my right shoulder, yet escaped major damage to my left knee, aside from all the swelling and bruising that is rendering it nearly useless.

Since my right shoulder has no strength (just plenty of pain), crutches were out of the question. It was a wheelchair for me.

Baku Then And Now: City Streets showing lavish spending that improves only special interests

How Would You Live With Disabilities in This Situation?

And thus began my “Life Lesson” on understanding accessibility. (Everyone should go through this- it really changes your perspective in a hurry!)

I got to thinking about my 10 years in Baku, Azerbaijan.

If it has been this hard here in the “land of mandated disability access”, how utterly impossible would it have been to be disabled in Baku?

Could I have done it?

When I moved to Baku, and later when I had to rent a new apartment, I never gave a thought to what might happen if I got hurt.

I had no health insurance for those 10 years, no western medical center at that time, and most critically, no one else to rely upon- just me… in a 5th floor walk up flat initially.

Can I imagine doing that on crutches? Maybe- ok, no, not really, not with a briefcase or sack of groceries. Bottles of water are quite heavy- as heavy as they are necessary!

Ironically, when I stopped by the restroom still in the hospital after getting my cast, my husband Joe pushed me to the wide door. Though there was no auto-open button, we got the door open pushed me over the threshold and I was told to wheel myself in somewhere and do what I needed to do. Wow. From mobile to helpless in 5 minutes.

I know from traveling with large suitcases that the handicapped-accessible stalls are extra-large, and they are supposed to be made for wheelchairs, thankfully.

But as I wheeled to the end of the room, I had to get close enough to pull the door open, backup while it swung clear, roll forward while the door was still open and get turned sideways to roll into the stall. Not at all like pushing a roll-along suitcase into the opening.

It took me 6 tries to get straight into the doorway. By then I was getting a little frantic, if you know what I mean.

First Lesson in mobility: Go before you think you have to! You will need to by the time you can.

Once I got into the stall, I was up against the toilet but couldn’t get the door closed. There was no one inside the room to assist from the outside. Again I backed up, grabbed the support bars with my one good arm, raised myself up on my one good foot and stood there… laughing.

I was laughing to the point of crying and wetting myself.

I was standing on my one good foot, using my one good arm to hold on and realized I had nothing left to kick the wheelchair out-of-the-way of the door, and no room to turn around to sit down.

Thank goodness this wasn’t a Sochi Style squat toilet! I would have fallen in for sure!

I could manage this once, knowing this was a temporary frustration on the way to a full recovery (I hope, anyway), but I certainly began to understand the exasperation or humiliation it is possible to feel as a disabled person.

If that’s happening here, what about people around the world for whom this is life? Those who don’t have a well-organized medical system like this one, or a set of laws designed to help?

I’ve been extremely happy with my treatment here, though it makes me realize I would not have been so lucky elsewhere perhaps.

For those of you who travel or are expats, did this consideration come across in your choice of assignments? Do you have a back-up plan in case something does go wrong?

Remember my post about my taxi driver– the one who had gotten into a car accident and had to have surgery?

I never even considered what if that was me lying in that bed. I would have been out of my mind seeing some of the treatments and conditions. I would have had no one to bring sheets and meals, or money to pay for injections and bandages. Think carefully about this.

Baku, Azerbaijan apartment advertisement: 4th Floor, No Elevator, Water Mostly Regular

4th Floor, No Elevator, Water Mostly Regular

This building here is where I had my second flat for a couple of years- a 4th floor walk-up in this building. (The top bay window in the middle was my flat).

From this corner, I had to walk around the back to a broken pavement and gravel walkway, into the courtyard, and back this way to a metal combination door.

From a wheelchair, getting over the gravel would have been one challenge, but the combination lock was shoulder-high for me when standing. Impossible from a wheelchair.

Even if I could have opened the door, what about those four flights of stairs?

I will say, things have gotten a little better- at least there is a People with Disabilities group now trying to bring the challenges to light. New street corner crossings (the kind with a level ramp down to cross) are being installed as a start.

And, what about the ever-present “подвал”?  (Podval, the word for “basement” in Russian, is used to describe below-ground-level stores, accessed by street level stairs down).

Expats often marveled that no one got killed or seriously injured by falling into the open gaps in the sidewalks- no rails around to alert you, no reflective tape or lights to warn you at night.

Beyond that, however, if you’re on crutches, in a wheelchair, or using a walker of any sort, you must move into the traffic of the street to go around.

Not the easiest thing to do, as I have found this week!

There are so many things we take for granted, health I think may be chief among them. But mobility in general for expats is a given. We do what we do because we can. The world needs us to share skills and information, so we do.
But what’s your plan for the day you have an accident? Have you thought about medical care in your country? Does your insurance cover care?
What about teaching safety to your children in foreign countries? Do we all suppose they will figure it out?
I realized I had not had my tetanus immunization updated in the years since I repatriated to the US.  So I got a tetanus shot at the hospital to boot. Talk about adding pain to misery! But it had to be done…
I have learned that just because a sign says “accessible” doesn’t mean it is accessible by a single person. Automatic doors are great, but they aren’t standard everywhere.
Even In Summer, These  Steps Are A Challenge. Photo of snow covered steps at a residential front walkway.

In A Wheelchair? You’ve Got To Be Kidding!
Even In Summer, These Steps Are A Challenge.

In the United States, new homes and businesses are often built with accessibility in mind. We have renovated our home to allow single level living, in fact.

But that’s just once you get inside. Getting up the steps certainly doesn’t qualify! The wheelchair was no help on this challenge.

Thankfully (?) this didn’t happen in the winter! Getting anywhere in snow is a challenge.

In Baku we had snow in the winter, strong winds in the spring and hot sun in the summer. Each season has its own challenges for people with disabilities.

They do have closer family units than (most) Americans do. But as an expat that’s something to consider- who can you count on in an emergency like this?

While I’m not overjoyed about being out of the garden for the next two months, I do have great neighbors who have taken on the watering for me (Bless them every one!)

My non-gardening husband tried to take my planting guidance to relay to another neighbor who had offered to put the last three “Vinca” plants in the ground for me.

Something got lost in the translation and the plants are now in a very peculiar place.

But, I think I will leave them there, just to remind me of those who have been so helpful in my time of distress! 😉

The rest of the gardens are being lovingly tended by my friends, and these blooms remind me each day how lucky I am.

Calla Lily in garden (photo)- an example of neighbors caring for others by watering and tending during an illness.


Maybe life does take a village after all…


Petunia flower box; bright colors attract smiles. Neighbors care for flower boxes to help each other during illness.

6 thoughts on “My Week In A Wheelchair: A New Lesson In Resilience?

  1. So sorry about your fall. Hope you are feeling better and able to get around soon. Even though you are learning to look at things from another perspective, I know it’s not much fun. Sending healing thoughts your way. xx


  2. Oh Jonelle, so sorry about your tumble. I can imagine how painful everything must be. I’ve taken a few tumbles myself over the years and learned first hand the realities of maneuvering casts and crutches, but I haven’t had a wheelchair (yet 🙂 . I applaud your determination and spirit. Thank goodness for all the wonderful people in your life. Sending you healing thoughts and best wishes, Terri


    • Many thanks, Terri! The one bright spot to all this is being able to catch up on all my Gallivance posts without a twinge of guilt 😉

      I appreciate the healing thoughts and wishes, but more than anything, I appreciate that you two are out there bringing us beautiful descriptions of all the places I can only see through your eyes right now! Keep up the visual therapy!


  3. Pingback: When It Comes To Sympathy, Pity, Understanding- The Differences Are Subtle, But Important | Life Lessons

  4. Pingback: Expat Living: Dacha Time! How The World De-Stresses | Life Lessons

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