A Mexican Nightmare… An education

I talked in Part 1 about all of the preparation I did getting ready for a working vacation on a client’s medical travel. This is a first time for me. I’ve done 14 years of personal care work, but never had a client pay for me to travel like this before.

So, we left Monday, Dec 12 with high hopes of a good trip. Our cab came just a tiny bit late, but still got us to the airport 2 hours early. Our check-in at MSP went without a hitch. Checking our bag in was 5 minutes. TSA spent a total of 8 minutes on testing the wheelchair. There were almost no lines and we were even able to get a snack on the way to the gate.

Here’s where we need to go over the difference between travelling with a wheelchair and without one. Here is my experience without a wheelchair: You get to the airport 1 hour before take-off. Check-in takes a maximum of 5 minutes, bag check another 5-10 minutes, TSA maybe 10-15. If you’re running over on those, you’re totally able to run down the stairs, up the escalator, and through crowds to get to the gate, where they will be loading by this time. You board just by handing your boarding pass to the gate attendant and you find your assigned seat. You have no need for anything extra beyond a seat and a spot for your carry-on. Total time from curb to boarded: 42 minutes.

Now, add a wheelchair: First off, the preparation is so much more. Before you buy your tickets, it is prudent to call ahead to the airline and see what size of aircraft is right for your needs. Wheelchairs, especially power wheelchairs, often take up more space and need extra support from staff to get the client on and off the plane. So, you spend an hour on the phone with the customer service of your chosen airline. If you “shop around”, you need to do this more than once. You also should find an assistant to come with you to help carry bags and direct the airport staff as to your needs. You’ll be tired, you don’t want to do this yourself. Then, you need to get to the airport at least 2 hours early. Here’s why- Check-in takes 5 minutes, as usual, with one extra click and double checking that there’s some special accomodations. Bag check takes 10 minutes easily because you have to explain to the check counter that you also have a power wheelchair and ask them to call ahead to make sure there’s an aisle wheelchair available. TSA usually takes between 20-40 minutes, depending on how your prep went. Sometimes, you can do TSA Pre check, so that helps cut down on time. If you have dry cell batteries (which many modern wheelchair companies are going to) or you have a manual chair, you cut down the time a little too. But, TSA needs to wipe every surface of the chair with a small tab that tells them if there’s explosive or drug residue on the chair. They also need to pat down the inhabitant because they’re unable to see any bulges that may exist. After TSA, let’s say you need the bathroom. You need to wait an extra 5 minutes for the special stall. Not only that, if there’s stairs, escalators, or crowds, you’re going to take double time to get to where you’re going. Elevators are notoriously slow; picking your way through a crowded terminal can be even worse when people’s eye level is above your head. By the time you get to the gate, you hope that it’s still before they start boarding. You have to pick your way right up to the gate attendant and warn them that you’ll need an aisle chair. Often, no one was informed of this, even though you’ve taken proper precautions. They call for customer service to send down an attendant and an aisle chair. You wait until the gate is opened and are the first person boarded. Hopefully, when you got your seats, you thought to put your assistant next to you. If not, you’ll have to discuss that with the gate agent also. First, you roll to the end of the gateway where the aisle chair and attendant are waiting. You are transferred into the aisle chair. Your assistant informs the baggage supervisor in attendance about how to move the chair. Your assistant also sets the chair up for travel, often having to lay the chair out flat, unhook controls, or remove pieces that may fall off or get damaged during transport. (Think doubling your carry-on) The baggage crew takes your chair while you pray that they were really listening and pass on the information. You are rolled into the plane by no less than 2 attendants, plus your assistant. The three of them coordinate moving you to a seat depending on where your seat is. We recommend an aisle seat; there’s less moving to get to that one. They take away the aisle chair. VERY OFTEN, your flight will be delayed because of maintenance. Do not be fooled; this is often because someone is trying to move your chair and have no idea what they’re doing. Ok, you finally leave and everyone’s boarded and ready to go. Time from curb to boarded: 156 minutes (2hours, 36 minutes).

Now, you guessed it, you’re only on the plane. Most people just debark and you’re done once you land; 5 minutes. Nope, not when travelling with a power wheelchair. You have to wait until every other person has gotten their stuff and gotten off of the plain. The flight crew has to call ahead and warn the destination that you need an aisle chair and an attendant for help. You wait for them. They get there and you reverse the process. If you have a connecting flight, it is my opinion that you should leave at least 4 hours between flights. Yes, you may be sitting for 3 hours if EVERYTHING goes correctly. But, you are much much less likely to miss that connection. Less than an hour for connecting with a wheelchair is just tempting fate. Hell, 2 hours even tempts it a little. Get ready to tempt fate over and over again if you’re travelling with a wheelchair.

This last week, we dealt with all of these and more issues with our travel. Next, I’ll tell you all about these great adventures in purgatory.


A Mexican Nightmare… Part 1

I warned everyone that I was travelling last week. Considering the week I had, I think all of my previous travels have been too easy. I’ve traveled with wheelchairs before, young children, and very very old people. All had some SNAFU, but nothing prepared me for this trip.

I was offered a few months ago by a client that they needed a caregiver for a medical travel trip to Mexico. When I said “Yes!”, I didn’t know where we’d be going, what kind of treatment is was, or what kinds of support this client would need. All I knew is that they were planning to pay flight, hotel, and basic food, as well as paying me some kind of salary while we were there. I was expected to cover any extra snacks, souvenirs, and entertainment I might use. And that’s all I knew.

I ordered my first passport, started preparing Jeremy, and started researching dos & don’ts. Don’t drink the water, check; don’t go out in the country alone at night, check; check the travel advisory for your itinerary, um…. where are we going??  A few weeks before, I got some answers to the unspoken things in this agreement. None of the conditions sounded adverse to me. I found out we were going to San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, MX (most commonly known as San Miguel). I learned it is a colonial town with a rich history, strong tourist business, and almost everyone knows some English. Win!! It sounded from the information I could gather that it was to Mexico City basically what the Hamptons to New York City; a quaint, well-cared-for town where wealthy people go to “weekend” or “summer”. I got excited.

I learned that my client needs full care for transfer and hygiene. No big deal, I’ve done this job for 14 years. For those that don’t know, I started my official life as a caregiver when I was 19. I inadvertently took a job with a personal care/group home company. All I  knew was that I wanted a job and they were hiring for better pay than most places. Since then, I have worked for 7 different companies, with over 100 different clients, and in 4 different states (I guess you can say 2 different countries now). I would consider myself an expert in the care and support of people with disabilities, especially those who deal daily with a power wheelchair or mental illness. So, the requests of transferring a large client, washing their body including genitals, & assisting with daily meds were all agreeable to me.

As I found out more about what my new client needed, I also learned about why we would be travelling. My client was going to Mexico to obtain a stem cell treatment. This was extremely interesting to me. My spirituality and academic degree allow me multiple perspectives on this subject. Having experience in DNA Analysis, chemistry, and a little biology, the concept of using basically “blank” cells to improve the health of a person is fascinating. The controversy over harvesting techniques and “acceptable” types of cells is also a motivating topic. The treatment would be administered by either intravenous infusion or intramuscular injection. I found that my client wanted the intramuscular treatment. The whole process was a geek heaven for me.

Another little tidbit of information I got before our trip was the weather: San Miguel is pretty much comfortable all year round. In May, they tend to have high temperatures that are just barely warm for some of us (80-90 degrees Fahrenheit). In “winter” (which is now), the temperatures are mid-70s F during the day and mid-40s F in the overnight. I think I may have fallen in love with this place. We went on our trip from December 12-18. This year, this week turned out to be -40 F with the windchill. Ummmm…. No. Very glad to be gone in Mexico during that time.
All in all, the trip turned out to look very very good from the front side. I loved the idea of doing some work, then some touristing. It gave me a purpose to travel. I liked that idea. Before we left, I felt significantly prepared for my trip.