I have a confession to make: I have recently undergone surgery to amputate one of my legs below the knee. It is actually a bit of a relief because that leg contained a malignant tumor that wouldn't disappear with chemotherapy or radiation therapy. For the next five or six months it means that I will have to use a walker or a wheelchair to get around until the leg is ready to accept a prosthesis. This is the reason that I have missed updating this column for most of the month of July. But I'm back on my feet again, OK, more like "back on my foot again" and I hope to keep this section updated on a much more regular basis. Using a walker or a wheelchair has also given me some new insights into things that most people who get around on two legs don't even notice or think about.
First of all I must say that I have been very happily surprised by the number of people who have offered me help with opening doors or getting up steep inclines. It just makes me feel that, even in these difficult economic times when many people are only looking out for their own interests or are not very happy, there is a basic goodness or want to help those who are having a difficult time. "Yeah, you may have taken a pay cut but at least you can get around on two good legs." I've heard about people in chairs that get angry with those who try to help them but, believe me, I am not one of them; I appreciate it and am very grateful for it.
If you are walking down the sidewalk you probably don't notice that it slopes toward the road or away from any buildings. This is done so that rainwater doesn't gather or pond up and flood basements. You notice this when you are in a wheelchair because gravity pulls the chair down the slope. It's sort of like having a car with a front-end that is badly out of alignment. The difference is that instead of wearing out your tires you have to fight the change of direction with nothing more than arm strength. The feeling of being pulled toward a road where there are cars—now much higher than you because you are sitting down instead of standing—that could cause you and your chair a bit of damage.
The other thing that you probably don't notice as you walk around and see streets and sidewalks from five or six feet up is that are numerous seams or expansion joints that can cause someone in a wheelchair to come to a sudden stop or, worse yet, topple over. Most of these irregularities are on the ramps or cutouts that were constructed to assist wheelchairs or carts in transitioning from sidewalks to streets and vice versa. These ramps are also where stones and dirt and trash that can grab hold of the small tires of a chair accumulate.
My arms and back are getting stronger, the skin on my hands is quickly getting tougher and my eyes are getting better at identifying potential hazards in my road. There are no flashing yellow lights on signs warning of hazards ahead and there are no flaggers to stop traffic (both pedestrians and vehicles) from coming upon me from alleys or side streets. No, I have to watch and listen and take care of myself.
It's a new world this world of the walker and the wheelchair and it's really opened my eyes to what some people have been dealing with for some time. It's made me aware that a lot of the things that are done to assist those in similar situations are not totally effective or need to be better maintained. No, I will not be in a chair for the rest of my life. I will eventually be fitted with a device that will allow me to return to the uprightly mobile. But I will never look at a person in a wheelchair or even the sidewalks that I use everyday the same way again.
Steve Eldridge is a long-time reporter, observer and commentator on the Washington region's transportation issues. You can contact him directly by writing to: Steve@SprawlandCrawl.com. Unless otherwise requested, letters or portions of letters can be used within future columns. Letter writers will be identified by their first name and city/neighborhood.