L. Michael Hankes  |  ATTORNEY AT LAW
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Why All those Handicapped Ramps are So Important

When I lined up for the open­ing face off on August 24, 2008, the oppos­ing winger asked how the knee was doing. As I replied that it was a lot bet­ter than it had been when it wasn’t attached to my leg, I couldn’t help but reflect on the road I had trav­eled over the pre­vi­ous six months to make it back from an injury that should have left me barely able to walk. I had been at my Mother’s place in early Feb­ru­ary and was putting away Dad’s 32 foot lad­der after clean­ing the gut­ters, some­thing I’d done a hun­dred times in the nearly 50 years we’d owned the house when it hap­pened. As I stepped up on the high gar­den chair to fin­ish restor­ing the lad­der to the rafters, my bad knee gave way, or rather, came apart as I tum­bled to the garage floor writhing in the most intense pain I’d ever expe­ri­enced. Two thoughts flashed through my mind as I rolled around the floor clutch­ing my rup­tured knee: “Will I ever play hockey again?”, and “Dr. Berry has to do the surgery.” I knew I was in real trou­ble when the pain stopped abruptly and the mus­cle just above my kneecap looked like it had a huge dent in it.

Not even my sur­geon could explain how I man­aged to drive the five hour trip home the next day, but as I went from the emer­gency room to the first sur­gi­cal exam­i­na­tion to the MRI to the final sec­ond opin­ion on the day of the surgery, the news went steadily from bad to worse. A com­plete quadri­ceps rup­ture, how bad was that really? The long faces on each of the med­ical per­son­nel every time I men­tioned the word “hockey” told me more than I wanted to know.

The sole excep­tion was Dr. Michael Berry, who bounded out of surgery on Feb­ru­ary 11, 2008 and announced that all the tis­sues were won­der­ful, that the surgery was per­fect and that I would be able to play hockey again… if I worked at it.

The demands of my trial prac­tice required that I fly to Cal­i­for­nia for clos­ing argu­ments less than ten days later and after a frank dis­cus­sion about the final­ity of a blood clot at 30,000 feet, I began my edu­ca­tion of what it was like to have to travel by wheel­chair. The immo­bi­liz­ing brace made it impos­si­ble to walk very far, even with crutches, not to men­tion being unable to sit or stand with­out pain.

I learned what it was like to move through an air­port in a wheel­chair and just how dif­fi­cult even a one or two inch curb was to nego­ti­ate. Because my leg had to be immo­bile, I learned to cra­dle my brace by hold­ing it straight out in front of me with my other foot, while being wheeled through air­ports. My wheel­chair atten­dants were great, but because of the paucity of ramps, I found myself being wheeled through back hall­ways and other spaces in air­ports I never knew existed. When there were ramps, going up and down pro­vided other chal­lenges, espe­cially when my wheel­chair atten­dant was less than half the size of my 225 pound frame.

At times, I was reminded of rid­ing a child­hood go-cart down the ramp at the beach into the water – only this time, there was a wall at the bot­tom of the ramp. I once had a pilot push me up the skyramp, because oth­er­wise, I wasn’t going anywhere.

Some of the air­lines were great; I learned from them that there were cer­tain seats reserved for hand­i­capped peo­ple. I flew a half dozen times before the brace came off at the end of March and I had expe­ri­ences with air­line per­son­nel and the gen­eral pub­lic that ranged from won­der­ful to incred­u­lous. Almost all of the wheel­chair atten­dants took great care of me, but I was shocked by some of the TSA per­son­nel who wanted to remove my brace despite the vis­i­ble sur­gi­cal scar or demanded that I lift my leg from a seated posi­tion which I would not be phys­i­cally able of doing until more than eight weeks post surgery.

The large major­ity of the flight atten­dants were very solic­i­tous. The one that stands out in my mind, how­ever, was the woman who kicked my leg because I had extended it into the aisle from the hand­i­capped seat, despite the vis­i­ble end of the brace just above my ankle. She took off her name tag after I yelped in pain, but didn’t bother to apologize.

The gen­eral pub­lic was more dis­ap­point­ing. I learned that a per­son in a wheel­chair was mostly ignored. At times it seemed as if I was invis­i­ble to every­one. Very early on I became pro­fi­cient at ward­ing peo­ple off with my cane, after one man dragged his roller­board into my extended leg and then pro­ceeded to tell me he was try­ing to avoid me.

Aside from free rid­ing through the air­ports, every­thing was more dif­fi­cult to nego­ti­ate. Try jug­gling a stiff leg cra­dled in your oppo­site foot, with a loaded brief­case, coat, hat and cane in your lap, all while being whisked through an ambiva­lent crowd some­day. I couldn’t order food at the counter with­out help or wan­der into a news­stand. Restrooms were another unpleas­ant adven­ture. In many restrooms, I couldn’t wash my hands, never mind all the other issues. The dif­fer­ence between my wheel­chair bud­dies and me, how­ever, was that I knew or hoped I knew that some­day, I was going to get out of the wheelchair.

After the brace came off, the vis­i­ble atro­phy in my repaired leg was unset­tling. As I con­tin­ued to travel, I spent as much time in phys­i­cal ther­apy as I could; I swam and exer­cised and prayed even more often. Then came the sec­ond surgery to remove the sup­port­ing wire from my knee on Fri­day, June 13. The improve­ment was dra­matic and imme­di­ate. On June 29, I stood at the door to the ice wait­ing for the Zam­bonie to exit the rink. I was boil­ing with emo­tions rang­ing from fear and trep­i­da­tion to an exci­ta­tion that knew no bounds. I was almost in dis­be­lief as I stepped through the door, planted my skates on the ice and skated my first warm up.

I actu­ally played again just three weeks later and by the time I left phys­i­cal ther­apy on August 19, the flex­ion in my rebuilt knee was bet­ter than my good leg.

As long as I live how­ever, I will never for­get the months I spent trav­el­ing by wheel­chair and I will always remem­ber just how impor­tant all the hand­i­capped ramps and access points are to those who need them. The next time you see some­one in a wheel­chair, please remem­ber that they are not only not invis­i­ble, but that their mobil­ity and qual­ity of life depend on your awareness.

This article is intended for informational purposes only and is not to be relied upon as legal advice, as individual facts and circumstances may vary.