By Melissa Swanson
I recently attended the TAP Chronic Pain Conference in Washington D.C. I was surrounded by chronic pain patients and those who treat them. During this trip, I realized that I really haven’t accepted that it is okay to ask for help – especially while traveling.
On a previous trip and returning home with a connecting flight in Denver, the plane landed at gate 20 and I had only 10 minutes to reach gate 84. I ran on the moving sidewalks carrying my backpack and wheeled carry-on. I was able to use the electric cart service for 20 gates. I do not think it was faster, but it gave me a short respite so that I could make it the rest of the way. I was filled with panic and finally reached the gate – in pain, exhausted and barely able to move.
My inability to admit that I needed help caused that pain. I could have used the curbside wheelchair assistance offered through the airline. The service helps passengers in boarding, deplaning and connecting with their flights.
Many of my friends use the extra assistance when traveling, and they often ask me, “Are you going to request assistance?” My reply is always, “I haven’t reached that point yet.”
My friend Diane explained the reasons she chooses the assistance. “They take care of the luggage for you. You don’t have to lug the heavy luggage to baggage check. They know their way around the airport.” She also said “the airport is such a wide open space without railings or walls to hold onto as we walk to be sure that with our poor balance we do not take a tumble.”
Why do I not save my energy for the upcoming trip? Why do I add to the body fatigue I am already experiencing? If I used the help available to me, I could possibly avoid the pain or at least lessen the severity. Is it pride? Am I not willing to admit that at that moment my body and mind need help?
Throughout the trip, I took note of how easy it was for my friends to use the services available.
A group of us walked into the hotel after site-seeing. We were all tired and hurting. I pushed on the first door feeling the heaviness, hurting, trying to hold it open for the next person. She promptly reached over and pushed the handicap button to open the door. As I approached, the second door opened automatically and I walked right through.
Why endure the pain of pulling or pushing that heavy door when the solution is so easy?
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Although I have never pushed that big silver button, I have looked longingly at it, immediately thinking “what would others think when seeing me use it?” I don’t use a cane or a walker, and on most days, I look healthy with the exception of a slight limp.
This big silver button with a picture of a wheelchair specifically states to me that it is reserved for handicap use only. I looked at the women walking into that hotel together; we probably had a total of 50-80 diagnosed diseases/syndromes. If that isn’t handicapped, then what is?
Our hotel did not have refrigerators in every room. My roomie (Tami) had called ahead requesting our room have a refrigerator for “medical reasons.” I thought clever, but it had never crossed my mind that it was true. She reminded me “you basically live on ice packs to get through the night.” She was right. I don’t know many “normal people” that use 2-3 ice packs nightly to be able to fall asleep and swap out for cold ones in the middle of the night. She was right. A refrigerator is a medical requirement for me.
I have learned to travel during the early afternoon so I can sleep as late as possible. Most hotels have an 11:00 check-out time. Tami had requested and been granted a 1:30 p.m. check out. It was wonderful. I slept until 11:00 and had 2 1/2 hours to get prepared for the trip home.
When we were ready to leave the hotel, she called the front desk to ask for someone to help with our luggage and bring the car around. I am somewhat new to traveling and did not even know it was an option. When traveling by myself, I struggle with taking the heavy luggage out of the room into the elevator, hoping one of the doors does not shut on me. In addition, I lift the heavy suitcases into the trunk of the car. Instead, this very nice man came to our room and loaded all of our suitcases onto the luggage cart. He escorted us down the elevator to the front of the hotel where our car was waiting for us, and he put the suitcases in the trunk. It was so worth the few dollars tip.
Another helpful option is the online check-in feature, paying for bags and printing boarding passes the day before travel. I have a wheeled carry-on and a backpack that carries all of my medication, sunglasses, spare tens unit pads and wires.
At many airports, travelers can apply for one of the several Trusted Traveler programs. If approved, they are able to move quickly through security clearance. I wear my Tens unit when traveling. I alert everyone at security and all that is required is that the unit and my hands are swabbed for explosives.
The DC trip was powerful in many ways. I realized that because I am still able to work that I don’t see myself as “disabled” or “bad enough” to use the assistance available.
I am still able to work because I have found the balance of medications, sleep, exercise, supplements and integrative therapies to help me continue.
I was always an “I can do it myself” type of person prior to fibromyalgia and its evil sidekicks. I had to change my way of thinking. I am only able to continue doing the things I do in my day to day life because I do ask for help and assistance when I need it.
It is time for me to embrace another change and continue this way of thinking when I travel.
Melissa Swanson is a chronic pain patient, advocate, and author. Through her Facebook page, she offers positive encouragement, medical information, resources, and support to 14,000+ fibromyalgia and chronic pain patients. In addition to her own blog, Melissa has been published in “Living Well with Fibromyalgia” and the NFMCPA “Advocate Voice.” She’s a graduate of the 2014 Class of Leaders Against Pain Scholarship Training sponsored by the National Fibromyalgia & Chronic Pain Association and a member of the Leaders Against Pain Action Network.