Friday, April 30, 2010

Travel Tips Part 4: Adventure Travel

Some of the more interesting challenges with prosthetic limb travel happen outside the normal hotel stay situation.

Take for example the outdoor tree shower in the Mopito tented camp on the Serengeti. There were no handy hotel chairs or bathtub sides to rely on there! Lucky for me, the pressure was so weak that I could leave my prosthesis within arms reach and still not get it wet.

For the most part, there's nothing that you can't adapt easily to, however, a few handy items in your pack can make a world of difference.

Wet Launching: Canoes, Kayaks and Zodiacs

Most prosthetic legs have a content of metal in them however small it may be. In fresh water this isn't really an issue, however, being in the salt can quickly corrode those metal components. To be honest, I'm not all that bothered by this; bolts are cheap and carbon fibre doesn't rust; but when I can, I do try to take measures to protect it.

I have a few things in my bag of tricks for this one: a large plastic bag, a "Skins" compression sock and a bit of waterproof tape. I slip the leg into the bag, tape the open end shut against the socket and cover the whole lot with the compression sock (for pure sex-appeal).

(click to enlarge)

When I return from the day, I thoroughly rinse everything in fresh water, especially the silicon bits that invariably must get wet.

SCUBA Diving

When I SCUBA dive, I like to take a few handy items: a child's snorkeling fin and long strips of double-sided velcro. I shove the small fin down the leg of my wet suit and fold up the excess material, strapping both to the end of my leg with the velcro strips.

It's not that I couldn't swim without the fin but diving is all about conserving your air so you can stay down there longer and see more stuff. The fin means I use far less energy to propel myself through the water. Less energy = more oxygen in the tank.

Bungee Jumping (and other intellectual pursuits)

Laying in my hospital bed, I was particularly worried I'd never be able to bungee jump, skydive or throw myself off anything fun ever again. I clearly wasn't the first! I was excited to learn that most bungee companies have switched from using ankle-only harnesses, opting in to the much more secure full body chest harnesses. A quick call to the operators will confirm whether or not they have this option available.

In this case, I still recommend taking a long nylon strap with you. This is more for making the operators comfortable than for any practical purpose. I know in my case, I could hang upside down from my prosthesis all day and the suspension wouldn't fail... when it's fitting right... however, the operators may not be so confident and they're definitely going to notice the leg when they check your harness.

Tie one end of the nylon to the ankle and the other end to the leg strap of the harness. This ensures that if the leg did manage to come off (unlikely) it would simply dangle from the end of a long strap rather than plummet to the ground.


Sleeping outdoors in a tent is no different for me now than before the operation, with a few very minor differences:
1) keeping the OTHER foot warm (going solo is cold)
2) getting the leg on in a tent

The first one is easily solved by packing the bottom of the sleeping bag with extra insulating materials, typically my thickest sweater or a small neck pillow. Extra socks don't cut it. Alternatively, I suppose one could bring a hot water bottle but I'd but I'd be curious to see if that stays warm until morning.

The second one, getting the leg on, is just free entertainment for anyone nearby. All I can say for this one is twist, push, pull and get used to looking like an overturned turtle struggling to right itself!

Manual transmission vehicles

Believe it or not, manual transmissions aren't out of the question for me. As long as the clutch is more of a knee-driven pedal than an ankle driven pedal, I'm fine to take it for a spin.

I only mention this here because many amputees never bother trying. I'm here to tell you, it's worth a try.

If you can't drive, you can always use your leg as a cup-holder on the passenger side!

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Travel Tips Part 3: Hotels and Homes

Let me start this post by putting you in the right frame of shoe.

It's often a bit intimidating for new amputees to leave the safety (and fantastic bedside table service) of the hospital in order to venture home and begin adapting to independent life again. This is quite normal.

There's a LOT to figure out; how to carry a cup of coffee on crutches for example or how to go up and down a winding staircase. It takes practice to navigate the most familiar of environments, let alone one that's entirely foreign.

Now imagine what it's like to be asked to spend the night in a hotel room or someone else's home for the first time (post surgically). How about camping? In a tent? On the side of a rocky mountain somewhere?

Hey, no problem!

Those pesky midnight trips to the bathroom:

In the past I tried traveling with collapsible hiking poles in lieu of crutches to get me around the room in the dark after I'd taken my leg off.

I thought it made sense; poles are light, compact and easy to pack in a suit case or strap to the outside of a backpack and might provide a little stability to my hopping in the middle of the night.

This proved to be quite dangerous. More than once, I very nearly took a header into the wall having a false sense of stability and the poles themselves would trip me up on unexpected lamps or desk chairs.

Solo hopping was no better and using a cane didn't work either. I didn't exactly have the best balance at 3am and the cardio woke me up a little too much.

I eventually came to the realization that, as much of a pain as it can be in the middle of the night, I just had to get used to putting that prosthesis on.

Do it a thousand times a day, in the dark, upside down in a tent, under water, in zero gravity and buried in a snowdrift until it becomes ultra-fast and completely second nature. It's really the best way to be safe and stable and let's face it, when you're camping you really don't have a choice.

I also find it helpful to keep a small flashlight/headlamp next to the bed. I'm less likely to run into an unexpected suitcase or lamp and the first few steps on a hastily donned leg aren't always completely stable.

Tricky shower configurations:

The "lip" on the bottom of a shower door can be a real challenge. Sometimes it can be 6 inches high and made of brick, a difficult obstacle to shimmy over on a wet surface. Recessed showers are even worse.

Probably the easiest and safest method with any shower is to leave the leg on until the last minute. I release the suspension and keep my leg in the socket until I'm ready to step out of it, having used my good leg to step in to the shower stall or tub.

(click to enlarge)

Believe it or not, in all the assessments I had from care advisers, not a single person said "umm.. it's not hard dude, just keep your leg on until you're inside" so this was revolutionary to me when I figured out how to do it safely.

The real trouble comes when it's just not practical to do this. Sometimes a tub side is far too wide and the stance gets unsafe. Other times, having the leg that close to the water would mean all the fabric parts of my liner and suspension would get wet, making for an uncomfortable day.

Tub configurations with wide sides can be tricky but as long as it's easy to reach both tub sides without getting off balance, I can usually just sit on the edge and twist in.

The real trick comes in getting out when you're soaked. The sides can be treacherous and there's very little friction so using a few dry hair towels for grip is a handy trick.

(click to enlarge)

This still leaves recessed showers, large bricked in stalls (common in campgrounds & airports) and other tricky configurations where the liner or suspension would get wet.

To solve the problem, I use the desk chair from the hotel room and push that up to the shower door. I walk or crutch to the chair, sit down, put my crutches or prosthesis aside, place my foot inside the shower stall and stand up. Easy and safe.

So there you have it!

You really don't need anything special (mobility tools, shower aids, etc) when staying somewhere new. In fact, forming a reliance on them at home may cause stress when they're unavailable. Just arm yourself with a few extra ideas for adaptation and figure out what works for you.

Then again, maybe I'm the wrong person to ask about "disability aids". I like to believe that I could survive indefinitely, hundreds of miles from civilization (if such a place even exists anymore) with nothing but a makeshift knife and fantastic looking beard...

Friday, April 16, 2010

Perth & Margaret River

After being in Australia for two and half years, it was high time to get across the country to Perth, in Western Australia!

Perth, in my opinion, is Australia's most beautiful city. The city skyline is classy, not cluttered and the whole city has that "new car" feel to it. It has miles of white sandy beaches without any of the rowdy drunken backpackers of the Gold Coast.

More importantly, Perth is home to two fellow Canadians, Kara and Lach. I won't dare tell you how good they are at hosting guests, lest they not be available the next time!

After having a night of fantastic wine and some of the best home-cooked food in the Southern hemisphere, we left Perth and toured down south to the Margaret River wine region taking in in all the sites. The area is absolutely gorgeous and the weather couldn't have been better!

Here's a small taste of what we saw:

Busselton Jetty, the longest wooden jetty in the Southern Hemisphere at nearly 2km.

The beer sampler from the Colonial brewery near Margaret River.

The precise location where the Southern Ocean (or Antarctic Ocean) meets the Indian Ocean. They tasted the same to me...

A Blue Tongue lizard giving us attitude near Meelup Beach, WA.

This was so cool! This is NOT a bird sanctuary, this is a regular old city park in Perth. The birds will fly down and land all over you if you bring them some bird seed!

Kara and Lach, our Canuck counterparts to the West! Thanks guys and Happy Birthday Kara!

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Travel Tips Part 2: Airports and Airlines

Approaching airport security with enough metal in your leg to build a small jungle gym without speaking the local language can lead to some difficult discussions on the other side of the metal detector. Nervously reaching down to your ankle to expose the leg after the fact in front of a high-strung guard may lead to a flying tackle while someone yells "GUN"!

This leads me to my first tip: zip-away convertible pants are your friend, especially when you don't speak the local language. Just drop the pant-leg from the knee and let the prosthesis speak for itself. Wearing shorts is also an option, but unless you have another pair of pants to throw on after security it can get cold on long overnight international flights.

Security screening from this point forward is always awkward and you can expect the full treatment, but I've never been asked to remove my leg. Don't be nervous, normally it's just a quick pass over with the wand and a sympathetic "have a nice day" smile.

Flying domestically in the USA was perhaps my most inconvenient experience. On leaving Nashville I was taken to a small private room where the screener did a full physical pat down, swabbed my leg and hands with three different pads for testing then spent about 5 minutes with the metal detecting wand. Lucky I wasn't in a hurry.

Seating assignments on the aircraft are perhaps the most important part of being comfortable. Because my prosthesis is on my left leg, I prefer to book a window seat on the left side of the plane in any row but the first one. Window seats have a small gap between the wall of the aircraft and the seat in front; a perfect spot to rest my leg. A window seat also means not having to get up for any small-bladdered fliers once my leg is off.

The prosthetic leg itself can make a really comfortable leg rest if you flip it upside down. The rubber on the bottom of the shoe is more comfortable than the sharp edges of the socket -- sort of your own mini travel ottoman. My right leg actually seems to get jealous of the fully stretched knee of my left side.

I've been told by many prosthetists not to take my leg off in flight. To that I say "yeah right". Clearly these people have never tried to wear one, especially not for that long in a stationary position. The socket gets mighty uncomfortable when sitting for 15 hours straight without getting to bend or flex the knee.

The medical concern is that the leg will swell up and it will be impossible to get the socket to fit after. This can easily be solved by wearing a shrinker sock or the liner on its own, although I prefer the shrinker as it lets the skin breath. I usually add a second sock for warmth over top then cover the whole thing with a blanket.

This brings me to my "seat kit". On the outside, it looks like a standard, run-of-the-mill leather portfolio for the regular business traveller. The difference comes on the inside. The following is my list of essential items and still leaves room for a magazine:

The real advantage of this kit is its slim profile. I can slip this down against the wall of the aircraft, wedging it against the prosthesis. This eliminates the need for keeping a larger, more foot-room-restricting bag under the seat in front of me. You might laugh here that I'm still trying to maximize space for my one remaining leg, however, the extra space allows me sleep fully turned on my side during long flights. That's right, neener-neener two-leggers!

One last point: many people pack extra socks, among other things, for long flights. I'm no exception to this with one small difference: no need to pack extra socks in the carry-on. The one on my left side stays fresh and clean, waiting to be swapped over just before landing!

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Travel Tips Part 1: Background

A few months ago, someone asked me to post some tips for travelling as an amputee. Being on my leg for just under a year, I wasn't sure I was qualified to start giving anyone "tips", however, my last six months have gone something like this:


...and back again.

...and back again.

...and back again.

DFW to BNA (not a typo)

I've been through airport security with my prosthetic leg in Australia, Asia, the UAE, Northeast Africa, South Africa, Canada and perhaps most frightening, the USA, both domestically and internationally.

During those trips I also travelled by 4WD in the bush, wet-launch zodiac(s), ferries, overland trains, subways, buses, hired cars and carrier pigeon.

I've stayed in tents with tricky midnight trips to the bathroom, hotels with every possible shower configuration (including an outdoor tree shower) and other people's homes.

It's now been just over one year since I received it, but all-in-all, I'm pretty comfortable travelling with a prosthetic leg.

Each travel situation offers its own unique set of challenges. A few points to consider:

1) I don't travel with crutches, walking sticks or hiking poles of any sort.

2) I don't take "special rooms" in hotels designed for people with disabilities (because there are people who really need those).

3) I don't request any special equipment for managing unfamiliar showers, even though I don't wear my prosthesis (impractical, the liners wouldn't dry in time).

Over the next few posts, I'll discuss some of my "lessons learned" for travelling with a lower limb prosthesis. I hope this can help someone out there and as always, please feel free to post your own comments/suggestions!

-- Mobile post