ATTENDING BMT GRADUATION WITH A DISABLED PERSON
From The Viewpoint of an AFWM Member:
First, I’ll let you know our situation, so you are better able to adjust to your own needs. My 93 year-old grandmother lives with us and is very close with our son, the Airman. GG (my kids’ name for their great-grandma) usually walks with a walker, but we have a wheelchair we use when we know walking would be too much. She has an oxygen concentrator at home for night time and as needed during the day. Naturally, she has an assortment of medications.
We were coming from Ohio, a 22 hour drive. Too long a car trip for GG, so my husband drove with the 3 kids who were able to attend ( 2 in college unable to go, plus our oldest already lives in TX). GG and I would fly. As an added benefit, Airman son’s girlfriend attends college in same town as the airport and was flying to cut down on missed class time.
Sooooo….here’s how we did it, the weekend of Feb 2-5, 2012!
First- if your loved one uses medical oxygen DO NOT USE THE PROVIDER RECOMMENDED BY THE AIRLINE. Call your medical supply provider. When I called the airline-recommended company, they told me it would be $350 for a portable concentrator for the week ( not an issue), and that Medicare/private insurance “would not cover it because they consider portable oxygen a luxury item.” Well, that simply is not true. If your loved one qualifies for oxygen, they qualify for temporary portable oxygen! He also did not reveal the fine print: a $3500 ‘hold’ on my credit card as a deposit for the machine, or the fact that I also had to pay shipping to and from our home. All I had to do was call our supplier – give at least 2 weeks lead time- and show up for a quick how-to lesson.
You DO need to be sure the concentrator is airline-approved. There also may be a form- depending on your airline- to have the doctor sign, then you fax for authorization. CHECK THE AIRLINE WEBSITE for their specific guidelines, and have everything pre-approved as far ahead of time as possible.
Notify the airline of : need for medical oxygen and mobility level of your loved one. Do this by CALLING the airline and talking to a live person, who can flag his/her ticket. This will also ensure you have an escort to help wrangle the wheelchair and bags.
Since we had a car making the trip, I sent our actual luggage with them. “ALL” I had to manage was GG in the wheelchair, the concentrator and accessory bag ( concentrator is a roll-on, accessory bag slips over handle of concentrator), a backpack with the need-to-have items, plus a tote bag I use on the back of the wheelchair…and the walker. I could have managed all that alone, but it was very nice to have an extra adult with us, plus the escort. Oh. I also had the BANNER with us and got it signed by random people we met along the way… including the bomb-sniffing dog at the Dayton airport- a proud graduate of Lackland AFB. ( Military working dogs are trained there J)
LAYOVERS ARE NOT A BAD THING. A long flight is a long time sitting and without an easily accessible bathroom. Two segments, with time to use a decent bathroom, get food and walk a bit worked much better for us. Remember- sitting a long time puts everyone at risk for blood clots when flying. BE SURE YOU HAVE AT LEAST A ONE HOUR LAYOVER TO ALLOW YOU TRAVEL TIME BETWEEN GATES. Watch out for possible concourse changes!!
MEDICAL DEVICES DO NOT COUNT AS BAGGAGE!!! Check whatever you will not need. We checked the walker, but kept our own wheelchair with us. More on that later J when you check things at the ticket counter, you can ask for an escort.
SECURITY: When you get to security, there is usually a lane for handicapped people/ families. This allows you to not slow down other travelers. You need to let the TSA agent know your loved one’s level of mobility, as well as hearing, vision, or dementia/confusion issues. That determines how he/ she will be screened. TSA HAS INFORMATION ON SCREENING OF DISABLED PEOPLE ON THEIR WEBSITE. READ IT!!!! http://www.tsa.gov/travelers/airtravel/specialneeds/index.shtm You need to advocate for your loved one at Security, so you must be prepared! There is a wealth of information I will not get into here, but you need to go to that site to get the specifics for your individual situation. Do not be belligerent with TSA, but be firm about what your loved one can/cannot do. For example, GG can stand, but she cannot stand without shoes on because she needs them for stability.
Also, every airport is different. The TSA in Dayton were very friendly and helpful, TSA in San Antonio acted like I wasn’t even talking to them.
When you get to security, have all documentation you need, such as for the oxygen concentrator or liquid medicine beyond the 3-1-1 limits. If you need something like scissors for dressing changes, plan on picking up a set at your destination. * we sent ours with the driving people* The best rule going through security is KEEP IT SIMPLE. It may be worth it to pay $25 to check a bag to cut your hassle! ***NOTE- NEVER check medications!! Not worth the risk. Bring enough for the trip, plus 2-3 days more. Have a written list of all medications, including vitamins and supplements, with you ‘just in case.’***
ABOVE ALL- LET YOUR LOVED ONE KNOW WHAT YOU HAVE LEARNED FROM THE TSA SITE. Prepared him/her for the likelihood of a manual pat down, and that a person of the same gender will do it. If your loved one has dementia or just forgets, keep repeating everything as necessary and talk to him/ her through the procedure so he/she can hear your voice and knows where you are. This really helps.
GETTING THROUGH THE AIRPORT: This is where an escort pays off- they know how to get you to your gate using elevators, not stairs or escalators.
Bathrooms- GG has travelled a lot in her life, but she was NOT prepared for self-flushing toilets and automatic soap/water/hand dryers/paper towels. It was a new experience for her every time she needed to toilet
AT THE GATE: If available, sit in the chairs designated for those needing boarding assistance. Let the gate agent know ASAP how much assistance you will need to get on the plane. If using your own wheelchair, let the gate agent know you want to gate check it. You will board first- before first class. We wheeled GG as far as we could in the jetway, then I helped her get on the plane. Once we were to the rows of seats, she could walk alone, holding the seats. I walked backwards in front of her while my son’s girlfriend was behind her. Get the concentrator under the seat, tube attached and turned ON before anyone sits in the row. The batteries can go in the overhead.
IF YOUR LOVED ONE CANNOT WALK TO HIS/HER SEAT: Airlines have ‘aisle chairs’ and will assist in the transfer to that chair, then the transfer to the plane seat, BUT YOU MUST NOTIFY THEM AHEAD OF TIME- when you book your flight.
ALSO… NOT EVERY AIRPORT HAS JETWAYS FOR EVERY GATE. By notifying them ahead of time, you can get priority for your flight to get a jetway gate. If this is not possible, the airlines have lifts to get the chair on the plane.
PLAN TO STAY ON THE PLANE UNTIL EVERYONE ELSE IS OFF OF IT. It is only polite to those who are in a hurry, PLUS the crew will be able to assist you.
ANOTHER ADVANTAGE TO GATE CHECKING YOUR OWN WHEELCHAIR…is that it will be waiting for you as soon as you step off the plane, you are not at the mercy of availability of chairs at your destination.
Ask for an escort to help you get to baggage claim ( if necessary ).
IF RENTING A CAR- Be sure the company knows if you need wheelchair space. Most agents are familiar with vehicles that easily accommodate the disabled. The Chrysler minivan I rented seated 7 and held the chair easily; the 8 passenger Traverse my husband rented to drive to Texas presented a struggle to accommodate the chair. A larger vehicle does not mean it will handle a wheelchair!
IF TAKING A SHUTTLE- Ask the first person in line ( or a travelling companion) to notify the driver you need assistance with a wheelchair. On a shuttle you will be last- on, last off.
CHECK INTO A PRIVATE LIMO- The quote I got was $60 from San Antonio Airport to near Lackland. Completely worth it. Later, we decided I would rent a car instead. This is something most people don’t think about. Private care service/ limo pick ups from the airport are not at all expensive. The really nice part is you have a pre-paid driver who needs to earn a tip and is completely dedicated to you ahead of time.
AT LACKLAND: The handicapped parking for the BMT reception center is easy to find. Let Trainees monitoring traffic/parking know you need handicap parking and they will assist in showing you where to park. Once you are on the Retreat Pad for the ceremonies, handicap seating will be available in marked sections. Only ONE person can sit with the wheelchair person. You get a decent view of the front of the Airmen there. No strollers or wheelchairs are allowed in front of the other bleachers.
But first- the Airmen’s Run!! The Airman’s Run is held on the Retreat Pad so you will be able to view the entire run from your seat.
REMEMBER YOU WILL BE OUTSIDE!!! GG is cold all the time- even in 100 degree heat. We had a chilly, misty morning, so I had extra blankets for her, hat and an umbrella. Keep the needs of your loved one in mind! Let him/her know when your flight is coming. You can tell by the color of their t-shirts. GG sat there and waved and my son was sure she saw him
After the run, we went to the briefing. Hubby and I took GG with us to get her out of the elements. Because we had the chair, we were at the very back ( not a bad thing). Even in the back, everything was clearly visible. We were able to get her out of the chair and walking for a good 10-15 minutes. Then out for the Coin Ceremony. You will have time to eat and hydrate. I suggest you do both. I had packed fresh fruit, pop tarts and bottles for water with the car crew. We couldn’t see much of the actual ceremony where we were, but that was ok. Be prepared for dummies who are so bent on getting to their Airman that they are prepared to plow over a 93 yr-old in a wheelchair.
Getting around was pretty easy with our own vehicles. We did not use the shuttles at all until Friday. Decent handicapped parking in most lots… eating was another story. We had 7 PLUS a wheelchair, so it was hard to get seating, but we managed.
Friday, we were there early, but thunderstorm threats cancelled the regular ceremony in favor of smaller ones at the individual training buildings. There was a specific handicapped shuttle with a lift, one addition person allowed as an escort. GG and I managed to score a front-row seat for the graduation at the invitation of a sergeant. We were sitting FEET away from my son!
There is no way to get a wheelchair up the 2 flights of stairs into the dorm, unless you carry it. We skipped that, but another family managed to get grandpa- and his chair- up the steps. Where there is a will, there is a way!
FOR THE CEREMONIES…. Remember that someone who is in a wheelchair need not stand when the rest of us do, but GG wanted to- most of our older folks want to… if they can stand with assistance, do help them. It sets quite the example for our young people for them to see a person with a disability WANT to stand to show respect.
CHURCH… There was no handicapped parking, but the trainees did let us in to drop off GG….the previous Mass was still going on, but they let her in with one of my sons so she would not need to be in the cold. When we were through, there were different trainees at guard when I wanted to pick her up. They had not faced our situation before, they only knew no one was supposed to park there, so I asked one to go check with his superior, which he was happy to do. Meanwhile, my husband was having a cow and yelling from the building for me to just pull in, which I would not do. The AB was following orders, and I would not ask him to disobey. By the time he came running out to let us in to pick up GG, my husband had her pushed halfway across the lot. I knew the young man just had not faced that situation before; now he knows. Just be mindful that these young men and women are respectful and they want to do the right thing, but they may not know what the right thing is. If it involves a variation of their orders, let them check!
In closing, do not let the fact that a loved one is disabled keep them- or you- from attending BMT Graduation. It was a long and challenging trip, and by the time we were home, GG was ready to be done with it all…but since she has rested, she has repeatedly said how glad she was to go and what a wonderful time she had.
Begin planning ASAP, make notes for two weeks of every item he/she needed, then decide what must be taken and what can be easily purchased if needed. Run through every step in your mind and anticipate situations that may arise- and how you will deal with them. Weather, health issues, accessibility are all concerns, but the primary caregiver of a disabled person should already have a handle on these things. Airline employees- and total strangers- are very willing to help…let them. When they find out they are helping the family of a service member, they will be thrilled- and you have given them an opportunity to be of service.
Several people ( including my mother ) thought the trip would be too much, but seeing GG and my son together made all the challenges well worthwhile.