by Richard Sleeman*
It seemed an impossible dream.
Three years after being diagnosed with MND, wheelchair bound and well into my 60s, I saw a TV ad one evening showing spectacular views of the Canadian Rocky Mountains. I’m going, I declared, to no-one there. The next day I ran the dumb notion past a few more sensible people than me and the answer was almost invariably the same. It can’t be done.
How would I survive a 15-hour flight from Sydney to Vancouver, a layover of some hours and then another flight to Calgary without being able to get up from an economy seat or airport wheelchair? That’s some 24 hours on my bum. On my own!
And even if I did arrive in one piece, I had no wheelchair there, no walking frame, no bathroom or bedroom aids. My dear friend Travis had an apartment in Calgary but with a shower over a bath and nowhere to sit or sleep I could safely get up from. And how was I to get around? It was a year or more since I’d been in a vehicle other than a wheelchair taxi. If we were to drive through the snow and mountains for days, I’d need to get up and down from Travis’ big red truck.
I’m a stubborn bugger though. I knew the negatives. I went looking for positives. Nurse Margie at Sydney’s Forefront clinic in Camperdown was adamant. “Go, and go now”, she said.
I bought a return ticket the next day.
Committed now – no refund on the ticket. I took a calculated risk and travelled uninsured. Calls to a number of agents proved additional travel insurance for me to be either unavailable or cost prohibitive, so I set about making it safely possible.
Madeleine Bowman from MND NSW was at my doorstep the next day, God bless her, having tracked down a contact, Jeremy, responsible for equipment loan at ALS Alberta, in Calgary. Fill out the paperwork, Jeremy said, and of course it can be done.
We requested a manual wheelchair, a four wheel walker, a bed pole, a toilet surround, and raised toilet seat, a bath bench and a shower chair. Even, and this was a bit cheeky, a recliner lift lounge chair. No problem, said Jeremy, we’ll deliver all that to your Calgary address the day before you arrive and pick it up the day after you leave. How much will it cost, I asked? Not a dime, he said. You only need ask and fill out the form and have it verified by MND NSW. And deliver all that they did.
So at least I could live comfortably and safely in Canada. I just had to get there. Nurse Margie devised a wee system for the plane, a bag strapped to my leg and an exterior catheter. Seemed like a good idea at the time. It wasn’t. There just isn’t enough leg room. I ditched it before boarding and used a spill proof container and a towel more or less discreetly placed over my lap. No one was any the wiser. I don’t think.
For those who, like me, have never flown immobile, the procedure is surprisingly safe and simple. Change from your wheelchair to theirs at check in, a staffer pushes you round to the boarding gate, transfer to a much smaller aisle chair at the aircraft door, and shift or be shoved onto the aircraft seat. There are burly staffers to assist in safe transfers. A transfer belt helps them get a grip. I wore one at all times while getting on and off flights. Getting on, you are first in. Getting off, the last out. On the advice of an occupational therapist, I took the Roho cushion from my wheelchair onto the plane with me and put it on the aircraft seat. That’s one secret for a pain free and pressure free long haul. The other is to drink and eat lightly. And above all, shift about in the seat and move arms and legs as much and as often as physical and space limitations allow. Keep moving.
Handicapped facilities in Canada are an eye opener. Every building, every store, every restaurant, has a separate push button wheelchair entrance. Taking the train in and around Calgary was as simple as pushing a button on the outside of the carriage, waiting for a ramp to descend and watching it retract once you were inside. Reverse the process on exit. Footpaths and public parks were a dream to negotiate. We have so much to learn. In my inner west suburb in Sydney, the footpaths are often cracked and unmanageable, my local public park devoid of wheelchair toilets, and about one in every four or five shops and restaurants accessible.
Life on the road in Alberta, Canada, even in bitter cold and heavy snow, wasn’t difficult. The road through the Rockies from Banff to Jasper is said by National Geographic to be the most spectacular on the planet. Hard to argue. Around every bend, a view even more jaw-droppingly stunning than the last. Six hours of sheer driving bliss.
I was lucky to have my friend Travis manhandle me in and out of his truck. At times, it was more an exercise in ballistics – whether I’d shoot out the open window on the other side. Not terribly dignified but who cares. We phoned ahead to book accommodation with wheelchair friendly rooms. Lots of availability though it wasn’t the high season. The sights of Banff and Canmore and Lake Louise and even some of the remote forest and lakeside tracks were readily accessible. So too, the amazing dinosaur museum in Drumheller. Some icy or snowbound paths provided a problem at times but there’s always a way around. And when you can sit by an isolated mountain lake, surrounded by snow-capped peaks and having seen deer and moose and caribou and mountain goats and squirrels and snow bunnies along the way, any hard road is worth it.
Back home now, and I feel empowered as I battle this rotten, evil condition. What a fabulous trip! If the thought crosses your mind, that you might want to travel, I would say without hesitation, do it. Prepare well. And go. I hope you might be inspired to do so. Let me know if and where you go.
*Richard Sleeman is a journalist, author and broadcaster based in Sydney. He was diagnosed with MND in 2014.