How to Survive a Wheelchair Shutdown


I really wish this was an article about the government shutdown. It would be a lot more satisfying to spend the next 1200-odd words comparing members of Congress to the small, misshapen toadstools you find in the pond next to a toxic waste dump. I mean, they can’t expect us to praise them for failing to do their actual job, right? Last time I checked, if a person couldn’t demonstrate any real skill or talent, they’d get fired. (This rule doesn’t seem to apply to Kardashians, or other reality television stars — including Donald Trump.)

No, this isn’t about a government shutdown. Rather, this is about another shutdown of a far more frightening sort. The kind that makes your hair turn white and causes you to question your own mortality.

Yes, it’s a wheelchair shutdown.

I have one of those custom motorized wheelchairs — the kind with oodles of special features designed to maximize my comfort, independence and mobility. This thing has a personalized seating system, a reclining feature, and six tires that allow me to turn in a small enough space to fit at least four or five Olsen twins. This is handy so I can get into smaller areas like a bathroom or a pantry, where I can grab a box of Cheez-Its without waiting for someone to do it for me. Anything that makes it easier for me to grab food to stuff into my face is a huge, valued part of my life.

Anyway, these wheelchairs are designed specifically for each patient. From the dimensions of the seating system to the height off the ground — it’s all perfectly designed to me. In fact, even the NASA-inspired honeycomb seat cushion is created to fit my buttocks. It’s like a designer Gucci purse for my ass.

While this may sound extravagant to some, if you had to spend 12 hours a day sitting in one chair, it had better be amazing. Not some piece of s*** you bought at a garage sale.

These specialized chairs are not interchangeable. If something goes wrong with my wheelchair, I’m majorly… well… f***ed. I can’t borrow a wheelchair to use until mine gets fixed. There’s no Hertz Rent-A-Car for custom wheelchairs.

I think you can sense where I am going with this, right?

A couple of weeks ago, a fault message appeared on the screen of my joystick — “Right Motor Fault.” I had just gotten into my chair and the morning had been bright with promise. I had a caramel vanilla coffee waiting for me and a whole list of things planned for my day. It was going to be great. The kind of day where I accomplished a lot of paperwork, yet still had time to make a pot of chicken noodle soup and watch two or three episodes of “The Crown” on Netflix. Yeah, it was supposed to be that kind of day.

But upon seeing that error message on the screen, my mood immediately plummeted. It went from great day to my life is over.

You see, my chair would not move.

Heart pounding, my mind began to race. I turned off the power, let the wheelchair sit for a moment, and took three deep breaths so I wouldn’t hyperventilate. Then, I tried the chair again. This time, the motors activated and moved.

While you may think I was ecstatic, relieved, joyous, I decidedly was not. My relief was measured, cautious — for I knew a motor fault error was a sign of impending doom, like a meteor heading to Earth or a Black Friday sale at Best Buy. Someone, somewhere was going to get screwed over by a 60″ LCD television for $180. And that person was me. It was inevitable.

This was the third set of motors I had installed on my wheelchair, even though the chair is less than seven years old. So I knew all the signs. The cheap toys in a McDonald’s Happy Meal have a longer shelf life than my s***ty motors. You’d think a manufacturer of a beautifully designed wheelchair could manage to put well-engineered motors on it, too. But no.

I guess we cripples can’t be choosers.

For the next couple of days, the specter of malfunction hung in the air — I knew the motor error would happen again, it was only a matter of time. So I did what any organized, thoughtful person would do. I called my local wheelchair company to give them a heads-up that sometime in the next week or so, my life was going to go down the toilet.

Then I called my doctor to have him fax a prescription for “motorized wheelchair repair” to the aforementioned wheelchair company. Yes, the prescription really does say that. Who knew that prescriptions weren’t only for antibiotics and Lipitor?

These repair parts take time to come in, so I knew I needed to get the order in pronto. Stat. ¡Muy rápido!

I also knew there was no way in hell my current motors were going to last until their replacements arrived. And I was right. A few days later, after sporadic functionality, my chair stopped for good. “Right Motor Fault” had won.

I had to be pushed around in my chair like a giant cart of bottled water at Costco. Or one of those pathetic drivers that runs out of gas and gets stranded on a freeway.

I couldn’t do anything.

My life stopped.

You know the old saying that sailors have a potty mouth? Well, even the shadiest pirate in 1790 had nothing on me at this point. I was a bundle of anxiety and curse words. I couldn’t say one sentence without at least two to three versions of the word “f***” in it. As a verb, adjective, adverb — I’m not sure there was a part of speech I didn’t use.

Then once I had exhausted myself, I called the local wheelchair company in tears a couple of times. It wasn’t pretty.

Some old smart British dude once said, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” I think anger and rage are, too. After a hunt in my garage, we found an old set of motors that had been leaky (but functional). So we swapped the leaky right motor for my dead one and said a prayer to the Broken Wheelchair Gods.

It worked. And the chair continued to work for another week until the new motors arrived from the s***ty motor factory in The-City-Shall-Not-Be-Named, Ohio.

But that week was still pure torture. I’d get up in the morning, get into the chair and feel my heart rate go up by about 20 points before turning on the joystick. Each time the motor fault error didn’t appear felt like Christmas morning all over again. Not the Christmas morning of recent years (you know, as a boring adult), but the Christmas morning of childhood — when Santa brings you a big box of Legos or a My Little Pony with glittery purple hair.

Yes, it really was that good.

Now that this current crisis is behind me, though, it means that I must start thinking about the process of getting a new wheelchair sometime soon. Given how precise and perfect the seat and chair must be, you can understand how I might approach this with dread.

I’m sure I’ll be writing about the process in the coming months… so stay tuned.

Keep your fingers crossed that these motors don’t die first, though.

This story originally appeared on Elizabette Unplugged.

Getty image by Amos Morgan.


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