I had occasion earlier this year to use a wheelchair while travelling home by air. I was en route back to Ireland following a stay in a UK hospital for complex surgery on my skull. I had been discharged from the hospital earlier in the day and felt totally elated to be on my way home at last. However, the journey proved to be more of a challenge than anticipated and I ended up needing a wheelchair. The experience was a real eye-opener.
I’d walked happily out of the hospital to the car with my husband but by the time we reached the airport, I had lost all enthusiasm for the journey home. I knew I was in trouble. On getting out of the car I was overwhelmed by nausea and dizziness and could feel the blood draining from my extremities. I felt so ill on entering the airport terminal building that I had to lie down on the nearest row of seats while my distraught husband contemplated the next step. We had two options. He could call an ambulance to take me back to the hospital or we could soldier on and try to endure the flight home. We had been told at the hospital that the flight would not represent a risk following the surgery. I knew what I wanted to do and when I’d recovered enough to be able to speak again, I proposed the idea that I could manage the flight if only I had a wheelchair. I was sure that if I did my utmost to appear well enough, I would be allowed to board the flight. It felt like an insurmountable challenge at the time but I was determined to get home that night. My husband soon found a rickety airport wheelchair (with zero suspension) and we proceeded to the check-in desk. Now it’s a well-known fact that you need to be in the full of your health to fly with Ryanair but this was taking things to the opposite extreme! I could barely even hold my head up at the time. However on reaching the top of the Ryanair queue, I smiled sweetly at the member of ground staff while my husband made light of our circumstances and to our surprise and delight, we were checked onto the flight no problem. No extra charges were requested – wonders will never cease – not only that, Ryanair also provided a decent wheelchair and promised that I would be boarded first, ahead of all the other passengers. Life was looking up again!
However we still had nearly two hours to fill in the passenger departure lounge before take-off and that time seemed to go on for ever. I can remember noticing that everyone seemed to be snacking on some fast food or other and it all seemed really busy and noisy compared to the quiet of a hospital environment. I was still feeling very nauseated and also very cold. My head was heavily bandaged and while I wore a large headscarf to cover-up, I was unable to disguise my swollen face. The thing that amazed me the most was that people were so rude in the way that they stared. While we battled our way through airport crowds I could really sense the unwanted attention. I had no idea that the experience of being pushed in a wheelchair could feel so demoralising – all independence is lost – and a wheelchair seems to represent a passport to others to stare. It really opened my eyes to the conditions that wheelchair users endure and of course, not everyone is as lucky as me to have been only temporarily using one.
When the time came for departure I was dutifully wheeled to the steps of the aeroplane by my husband, accompanied by a Ryanair escort and was helped to board the plane while all the other passengers waited in the terminal building. It was a great help to get this little bit of VIP treatment though it wasn’t long before everyone else followed and of course many of them had another ‘gawk’ on boarding the plane. The flight itself was fine and on landing, Ryanair again came up trumps by providing a wheelchair for transport through the airport. Again, I had to endure endless stares and by the time we got to the arrivals hall, I burst into tears on being met by a dear friend. It was such a huge relief to be whisked home, away from the public glare.
Yesterday I repeated the same journey as I had to make a return trip to the UK for a check-up with the surgeon. This time I did the journey alone and in the full of my health. The news was good – the surgery has been very successful and I felt like dancing in the streets afterwards. On the way home through the airport last night, the memories of that wheelchair journey came flooding back. I thanked my lucky stars to be able to walk to that plane. I also resolved to never, ever stare again at anyone in a wheelchair.
And Ryanair – you can take a bow 😉