Today was supposed to be the day that I made my 20+ hour trip from South America to my parent’s house in South Texas. Over the past few weeks, and especially over the past few days, I’ve been a little nervous about taking such a long trip on my own…but anytime such nervousness arose, I reminded myself that as long as I asked for all of the help that I needed, everything was going to be okay.
As I started my trip this morning, hours before the sun had even risen, I was feeling a little bit of relief. My largest suitcase (which I can’t even carry/roll on my own) was checked in to my final destination, and all I had to go was get both myself and my carry-on through my scheduled four flights. Challenging, yes…but completely doable. During my first flight, I thought about how helpful everyone at the first airport was, as they gave me a helping hand with my bag or as they asked me to jump to the front of the many different lines that I encountered.
A few seconds into takeoff of my second flight, the plane that I was in struck a bird. Now I’ve never experienced this before, but the moment it started, I knew exactly what was happening. (It felt like the left engine was going to completely fall apart, and the air inside the cabin had a “burnt” smell.) I knew as much, partly because I had done some extended reading on the topic of “bird strikes” soon after the U.S. Airways flight landed in the Hudson River a few years back, after losing both engines due to bird strikes. I also started to remember, as I sat there frozen, how all of the articles mentioned that the most dangerous bird strikes were the one which occurred seconds after takeoff.
In what seemed like an eternity, but which in reality was probably less than a minute, the pilot came on the intercom to tell us that we had indeed run into a bird, and that we were lost almost all power in the left engine. He was going to turn the plane around for an emergency landing, but in order to do so he would first have to increase our altitude. He also told us that we could expect to see emergency vehicles on the runway as we landed.
And in what seemed like a double eternity, we continued to increase our altitude…even though our ultimate goal was to get back on the ground as quickly as possible. Before I knew it, the wheels touched down on the tarmac, and everyone let out a collective sigh of relief (which was immediately followed by applause and clapping).
As we taxied back to the gate, the reality of our situation started to settle in. Imagine a tiny airport in South America with a once-daily flight to the U.S., and with not a maintenance hangar in site. This is exactly where we were. Now don’t get me wrong…I think every person on that plane was happy to have landed safely…but it was quickly evident that we were dealing with a problem that was going to take the airline days to resolve.
I started to think about everything that was in my near future: having to collect the bag that I couldn’t even carry/roll, having to take a taxi or a shuttle to a hotel, having to spend a yet-to-be-determined amount of nights in this hotel (ended up being two), and than having to complete this process in reverse when it was time to go back to the airport. I immediately started to get anxious, but ended up thinking the same thoughts that have gotten me so far: everything is going to be okay; I just have to get through it one step at a time.
While I was being wheeled around the airport (the guy who was pushing me was also managing to pull my large suitcase at the same time), I was still feeling optimistic. (I was also feeling what has probably been my largest adrenaline rush ever.)
The long line at the tiny airline counter had already formed by the time I and the four other people in wheelchairs showed up, which was not a surprise considering that we were the last ones to get off the plane. What was a surprise, however, was the airline employee who told the people pushing the wheelchairs that they needed to put us at the end of the line.
I immediately objected to being put at the end of the line, and demanded that those of us with wheelchairs be allowed to go to the front of the line. The airline employee’s response remained unchanged: we were to wait our turn, at the end of the line.
I told the young man who was pushing my wheelchair that this was not acceptable, and asked him to please wheel me towards the front of the line. I could tell he was confused: should he listen to his fellow airport employee, or to the passenger in the wheelchair? In the end, he chose to listen to the passenger. As he pushed me towards the front of the line, the employees who were pushing the other wheelchairs also followed suit.
Which leads me to my next surprise: some of the passengers in the first class line started to complain (out loud) that those of us in wheelchairs were being given preferential treatment. (Talk about being *completely* flabbergasted!) Luckily, the passengers who agreed that we should go to the front of the line outnumbered those who disagreed, and quickly stepped aside and told us to please go ahead.
Despite these few “misguided” people that I encountered during today’s journey, I’m still convinced that a large majority of the people that I have encountered so far–employees and fellow passengers–have been more helpful than I could have ever hoped for. (I’ve counted at least twelve pairs of hands that touched my carry-on suitcase today, and the taxi driver and the hotel staff have been extra-accommodating.) It’s sad that those of us with disabilities continue to encounter attitudes such as some of those that I experienced today, but it’s also nice to see that there are so many kind souls who are ready to help without even being asked to do so.
Stay tuned…for the next adventure of Rheumatoid Arthritis Guy!