Traveling on Amtrak with a disability

December 29, 2018

Travel is often tricky when you have a disability. Maybe you can’t lift your suitcase into the overhead bin on an airplane or you need to make frequent stops on a car trip. Whatever the issue, there are a lot of unknowns. So I thought I would tell you about my experiences on Amtrak recently. Obviously these are only my own experiences, and I’m sure it will be different for everyone. Still, I learned a lot.

I mentioned in last week’s post that I recently took my first week-long trip since I got really sick about 8 years ago. That was a big deal! So as you can imagine, I was very nervous. I am thrilled to say that it went very well, and you can (and should!) read all about it. The first thing I did was get on a train to Philadelphia, and I’m happy to say that despite my nerves, that went very well, too. So here’s my experience, mostly good, with a few bumps.

2018-12-15 Leaving NY

My view as I left New York

The first thing that happened, of course, is that I made reservations. I spent a while considering my options. I didn’t have a lot of flexibility on the dates. I looked at all of the trains. Some were high speed and some weren’t. Some business class tickets were almost as cheap as coach tickets. But timing was important. I didn’t want to go too early, since I knew I would need a lot of time to get ready without stressing out too much, and I didn’t want to arrive too late. I noticed in poking around on the web site that I could enter that I had a disability and I would get a reduced price fare! I was definitely taking price into account, so that made a difference. Some fares had huge discounts and some weren’t discounted at all if they were already really cheap tickets. For example, my trip from Philadelphia to New York was $39 without a discount – I wasn’t about to complain about that! You can get info on the discounts here. There’s a list of documentation to prove you are disabled, but I was never asked for anything. I’m guessing that varies. Finally I chose my tickets and tried to book online, but had trouble. So I picked up the phone.

I was able to tell the agent on the phone exactly which tickets I wanted. And when I booked, I was clear that I needed a wheelchair at each station. She asked if I wanted accessible seating with extra leg room. I asked about the price and she said there was no extra charge. Wow! I hadn’t been expecting that. So I said yes, and I’m glad I did. But more on that later.

We made a reservation (which didn’t have to be paid for a few days) and I went on my merry way. Except I was having trouble figuring out how to get to the station in Boston. The last time I traveled by train I lived closer to the city. I posted on Facebook and asked friends how they suggested I get from the suburbs to the train station. Someone suggested that I leave from a different station. I would have to pay for parking, but since my plan had been to leave my car in a friend’s driveway and then take a cab or a Lyft into the city, the cost would be the same. It was perfect!

I called Amtrak to change the tickets. I hadn’t paid yet. The person on the phone pointed out that I had accessible seating on one leg of my trip, but not the other two (I was going Boston –> Philadelphia, Philly –> New York, and NY –> Boston.) The first person had screwed up and I wouldn’t have known until I got on the trains. In fairness, the confirmation had said it clearly, but I didn’t read it closely enough. Lesson learned! The person on the phone cancelled my old tickets in order to book new ones in accessible seats. Once those tickets were cancelled, the new ones popped up at that day’s prices – and ended up costing me $100 extra! I was pissed, because they hadn’t told me. She assured me that when a new ticket opened up at the lower price, I would get it. I was still pissed. I told her that shouldn’t have happened. I was taking the same trains at the same times as before. The accessible seating mistake was the agent’s fault, not mine. She insisted she couldn’t do anything, but that she would get me a lower price. What could I do? I booked another reservation. In the end, she was right. 2 days later I got an email saying I had tickets at the original price. I had worried for nothing. If that hadn’t worked out I would have made a bigger stink about it, because really, it wasn’t my fault they hadn’t given me accessible seating in the first place. Anyway, I paid and then got ready for my trip.

The suburban station I left from was tiny. I got a disabled parking space in the garage (I have a placard) and schlepped my stuff inside. Here’s where I made my first mistake. I went to the agent and got my tickets. He asked if I really needed a wheelchair, since it was a small station. That was an inappropriate question that he should never have asked! And I made the mistake of saying I was fine. The station was tiny and I got to the seating area just fine. But getting my stuff up the ramp to the train platform later, though not far, was too much. I should have asked for luggage assistance, but I didn’t know that was a thing. I asked how I would find accessible seating. He assured me that the conductor would be looking for me and would help me. That part went well. The conductor carried my suitcase onto the train like it weighed nothing and found me an empty accessible seat. The seat next to me was empty, which was nice.

Later, another conductor came by to check tickets. He asked if I really needed the accessible seating and I said yes, and told him I would need a wheelchair in Philly. He didn’t blink. He didn’t ask for proof. He simply told me he wouldn’t be on the train there, but would leave a clear note above my seat (where they place the tickets) for the next conductor, and the wheelchair would be waiting for me.

I read and ate and looked out the window and read some more as the miles passed. At one point an older couple got on the train. I heard the conductor explaining there were no accessible seats remaining on this train and next time they should reserve one. I felt bad, even though I had no reason to. They sat behind me.

More miles passed, and a family came up to me, a man and a woman holding a baby and pushing a stroller. They asked if they could have my seats so they would have room for the stroller. I started to say no, feeling horribly guilty (again, I shouldn’t have! And yet I did. Go figure.) Then the conductor (the same one who checked my ticket) came over and told them that I had reserved the accessible seating and they needed to leave the stroller in the luggage area up front and go find other seats. I was relieved and also impressed. I was also glad he happened to be in my car at the time. Later, he stopped by my seat to ask if I was doing ok, then said, “Can you believe some people? I can’t believe they would ask you to move out of accessible seating!” I appreciated his support and helpfulness. He had the perfect attitude. He was right! In their defense, the seats weren’t clearly labeled as been accessible seating. And of course, I don’t look disabled. Still.

Many times during the trip I brought my suitcase from that big empty area in front of me (big enough for a wheelchair) and put it a bit in front of my seat and propped up my legs on it. That made a huge difference for my knees and hips. Otherwise, I don’t know how I would have managed. Thank goodness I had the accessible seat! I also made sure to get up several time to walk a bit – that’s much easier on a train than on a plane, though there’s still swaying. I leaned against the luggage storage above the seats as I stretched, bringing my legs into the big open wheelchair space. It helped a lot, I think.

In New York we had a 15 minute scheduled wait. I walked around a bit on the train. The conductor told the couple behind me to wait, that he would get the wheelchair that hadn’t arrived yet. He assured them the train wouldn’t leave until he gave the word, and he wouldn’t do that until they had the wheelchair. I chatted with them while they waited and we had a nice time. The wheelchair came and they left. We were getting close!

Somewhere between NY and Philly I got tired and wasn’t feeling as well. At Philly, the conductor told me to wait in my seat for the wheelchair. It was only a minute before the wheelchair arrived. He helped me with my luggage. The red cap worker pushed the wheelchair with one hand and pulled my suitcase with the other. I told him I needed a cab so he brought me right to the cab area, to the ramp in the curb. He had the guy directing cabs send one up to the ramp. He put my suitcase in the trunk and asked if I needed help getting into the seat. I was VERY impressed.

The first leg went smoothly! What a relief!

Several days later it was time to go home. I found a red cap at the train station in Philly and told him I would need a wheelchair. They were all being used, but he assured me he would find one and would come get me when it was time. I was very early, so I read a book. But as the time came for my train, I got nervous. I got up and looked for the red cap, saying my train would leave in 5 minutes. And there were no wheelchairs. He assured me were fine. He pointed to a long line of people and said they were waiting for my same train, that it hadn’t arrived yet. Ok. I relaxed. But a minute later he was there with a wheelchair and he brought me and my luggage down to the platform.

This time there was someone next to me on the train, but I had accessible seating. It was only and hour and a half so I felt the seat wasn’t necessary, but I booked it to keep all of the tickets the same. And then part way through the trip my knee started to lock up and I became very grateful for the extra leg room! I propped my leg on my suitcase again and it made a huge difference! Another lesson learned – even for a shorter trip, I need that space.

And once again, the conductors and red caps handled my suitcase and assured me I would have a wheelchair in NY. Great!

Sure enough, in New York the wheelchair was waiting when we arrived. I told him I needed the subway and he not only brought me to the area, but pushed me to the ticket area so I could buy a ticket, and asked the person at the turnstiles where the elevator was. He made sure I had everything I needed, since he wasn’t allowed through the turnstiles. The elevator was right there, so I got down the platform easily. Again, everyone was friendly and helpful.

A couple days later, it was time to head home. This was the one part that didn’t go well. First, I had to walk through Penn Station to get to the Amtrak area. The station in the Boston suburbs is tiny. The station in Philly is big, but the Amtrak area is near the entrance. Penn Station is huge. I followed signs and didn’t get lost, but it was a long walk and I was in a lot of pain when I got there. I showed my ticket to get into the Amtrak waiting area and immediately found 2 empty seats, dropped my things in one, and plopped into the other. I had an hour before my train. I rested and ate part of my lunch. Then I finally went to the red caps and asked about getting a wheelchair. They told me they would find me. I went back to my seat and ate more and read my book.

A bit before my train, a red cap came over and checked in. He told me he just wanted to make sure he knew where I was sitting. That was reassuring. A few minutes later he came back with the wheelchair and a dolly carrying another suitcase. He added my suitcase. He was walking fast to the elevator with another passenger behind him. He asked if he was walking too fast. She said something about a problem with her foot making it hard to walk. He slowed down a bit.

We got to the elevator. People got off and the doors started to close. He opened them and got our luggage on, then came back to put on my wheelchair but the doors closed first! He swore and ran down the stairs, leaving the other passenger and me feeling bewildered. Another red cap walking by commented that he could have pulled the red emergency button to keep the doors open. When the doors opened again the elevator was…. empty! I expected to see the red cap with our luggage, but it was totally empty! The other passenger and I looked at each other and didn’t know what to do. The red cap came running back up the stairs and was upset to see the elevator closed. He berated the other passenger for not holding it open, while I asked about our luggage and said he’d taken it off the elevator and left it on the platform. Yikes! Now I didn’t know if our luggage was safe, and he had the nerve to get mad at this poor woman, even though he was the one to screw up. Why didn’t he just come back up with the elevator? Worst of all, he was muttering that now we might miss the train. WHAT!?!?

When the elevator came, this time he pulled the red emergency button. When we got down the platform he retrieved our luggage and took off practically at a run to get us on the train before it left. I was ok in the wheelchair, but I worried about the poor woman who was having trouble walking. She needed to get to the back of the train for the quiet car. The red cap put me and my luggage in the first car, then ran off. I only hope he put that poor woman in the wheelchair to get her to the back of the train!

That was a horrible experience, which is a shame, because everything else had gone really well. The train ride home was easy. I had the seat next to me empty again, and in fact most of the car was empty on a Saturday afternoon. I stretched and walked around as needed, and propped up my legs when I needed to. The conductor knew I needed a wheelchair, but I told him I might not, and I would know as we got closer. He checked in as we got closer to home and I told him I didn’t need a wheelchair, just help with my luggage. It was that tiny station again, and I knew I needed to stretch my legs after the trip and before my drive home, so I thought it would be a good idea to walk a little bit. The red cap was waiting for me at the station. He loaded my bags onto a luggage cart and we headed inside. I asked where I would pay for my parking and he said either at the nearby desk or when I left the garage. I asked if he minded waiting while I paid at the desk and he said not at all. We had a pleasant chat as we walked to my car. He even put my suitcase into the trunk, which I hadn’t expected!

As I drove home, I thought about how easy my return had been. In fact, the train travel in general had gone well. Except for that horrible time in New York’s Penn Station on the way home, everything with Amtrak had been fantastic. I can’t believe they give discounts for disabled passengers, free accessible seats (as long as they aren’t all booked,) and help with luggage whether or not someone needs a wheelchair. They might offer other services as well, but these were the only ones I needed.

So that’s my experience. Obviously, your mileage may vary, but I hope your travels go as well as mine did. In fact, they went well enough that I hope to take the train to New York again in a few months!


The power of a hug

October 14, 2017

Somehow, I did it. Despite the crappy weather that makes me feel horrible, I managed to not only survive the short weekend with my friends, but to enjoy it!

Ok, it wasn’t all great. I did feel like shit part of the time. But having friends there made it easier to handle in some ways.

Of course, having friends there also made it harder to handle. They went on walks when I couldn’t, and while someone was always hanging out at the house with me, I know they limited themselves to do it. I wanted to be carefree and have fun, but life isn’t always that way.

Not that the others were carefree. One was frustrated with a spouse, another had job worries, etc. You know, life. It’s easy to forget about that stuff when you live alone and can’t work, but health does not guarantee an easy, stress-free life.

So there we were on Saturday night, having a lovely dinner, when it hit me. Symptoms. Fuck.

I went to lay down on the couch. It was an open space. No one could see me because the back of the couch blocked their view from the dining room table, but they knew I was there, and I would sometimes speak up to join in the conversation as they cleared the dishes and put away food. I was nauseated and in pain, not that they knew what my symptoms were. They just went about their evening, because they know that’s what I prefer. No fuss.

And then it got worse. Resting on the couch wasn’t enough. I found myself breathing hard, face pressed to a pillow, willing myself to feel better. I wanted to have fun with my friends. I didn’t want them to know what was going on.

It’s lousy that we have this stigma in our society. These are my closest friends, but I didn’t want to tell them what was going on because I didn’t want to sound whiny, or like I was trying to make a big deal out of nothing.

How ridiculous. How common. How sadly natural.

And then suddenly, as if she knew, one friend came over, leaned over the back of the couch, and asked earnestly if she could do anything for me. I said no, while at the same time, wishing I could ask for a hug. She’s not the huggy type, and I felt ridiculous. Still, her asking was like a hug in a way, and it suddenly brought tears to my eyes.

I never cry when I feel bad like this. It wasn’t that bad, on my own scale of suckitude, after all. But having someone care to ask made me emotional. I’m not used to that. Usually when I feel horrible like I did that night, I’m at home. Alone. With no one around to even be aware that something is wrong, much less to offer help.

Then another friend came over and simply gave me a hug. And when I let go to pull back, she held on. She kept hugging. She hugged and hugged. And it felt amazing.

The next day I pulled her aside to tell her how much that hug helped. But in the moment, I just felt it and enjoyed it.

Amazingly, I started feeling better right after that. Well enough to at least get up for some more medical cannabis. That helped some more. And then, suddenly (though not really suddenly at all) I was able to get up and move around. Ok, my knee still had shooting pains, so I wasn’t walking well. I had to sit with my leg up for the rest of the night. But the nausea went away. The pain because bearable. And my heart felt happy.

Because for once, friends were there to offer help and give me hugs. And that made all the difference.

 


Feeling moody from pain

July 19, 2017

There’s an emotion toll to chronic pain that’s easy to miss if you have only ever experienced short term pain.

A banged finger will heal soon enough. A sprained ankle will cause frustration. Even a broken bone rarely leads to anything permanent, and so you just wait it out. But the chronicness of chronic pain means that you need to handle it long term, and that comes with a lot of emotions.

Over the years I have had many feelings about my pain. Working through them has helped me to deal with my feels now, and yet, I still struggle.

I have new pain. Just 2 short months ago my thumbs weren’t even on my radar. I used them without thought. Now, everything hurts. I cringe when I realize I have to go to the bathroom, because I know I will feel extreme pain when I pull down my shorts. Picking up a plate is difficult and painful. I wonder how long it will be before I break and drop something not from clumsiness, but because of the pain or weakness. [Side note: I say my thumbs hurt throughout this post, but more specifically, it is the joint that connects each thumb to my hand. Thankfully the rest of each thumb is ok…. for now. Since every movement affects that joint, I can’t use my thumbs without feeling the pain, though.]

I’m scared. This pain could be permanent. I might literally have it every day for the rest of my life. Or it could go away. Or it could go away and then come back at random times. There’s no way to know.

I’m frustrated. When I feel horrible, I spend some time on the couch watching tv and crocheting. That makes me feel better. But I was in too much pain to crochet. I always fidget, always need to keep my hands busy and my fingers moving. But now any type of fidgeting I do is painful, because I use my thumbs, or I use other fingers and that pulls at the muscles that connect to the thumbs. What on earth will I do if I can’t crochet or fidget? I can’t even begin to imagine.

I’m sad. So very sad. Because I know that my thumbs will probably never be the same. And because I know there are other joints in my body that I am taking for granted now in the same way I took my thumbs for granted two months ago. I want to appreciate everything now, while I can. I even want to appreciate my thumbs because I know all too well, from 26 years of joint pain, that things will probably get even worse and that I will look back on this time and wonder with amazement at how I didn’t realize how good I really had it, despite the pain.

I’m overwhelmed. My head swirls. Did the onset of summer cause this or exacerbate it? If so, maybe things will be better in the fall? The increased dose of my anti-inflammatory supplement, from 1/day to 4/day, hasn’t helped. I really hoped it would. When I started with 1/day last year it changed everything and made me feel so much better, but it seems no match for my pain-filled thumb joints. Or maybe it’s disease progression, and I need to go back to taking Plaquenil. I don’t want to, for many reasons, but I can’t deny that it has helped a lot in the past. I’m in so much pain that I almost want to try it now, but should I wait to see if things get better in the fall? Then again, what if they get worse? What if waiting just leads to more damage and makes it impossible to halt things? No one can make these decisions but me. I could see my doctors, but would they say anything I don’t already know? Besides, I just saw my rheumatologist a couple months ago and I have another appointment to see her in a month. It seems silly to move that up so soon. We can discuss it all then. But when every day is such a struggle, a month feels very far away.

I feel trapped. I feel trapped in my body, which is so filled with pain. And I feel trapped in my apartment, because the evil humid air outside makes my symptoms worse. I know that even a walk to my car will increase my pain and fatigue and will bring on nausea and diarrhea. I can’t go out there. But I need to move, to be distracted, to do something.

I feel cut off. Texting has slowly become a primary form of communication amongst my friends and the new person I’m dating. But texting is far too painful. I dictate messages into my phone, but I find that frustrating. And even just navigating to my messenger app is painful. I can do it, but it hurts. I am SO GRATEFUL that typing on my laptop isn’t too painful yet. But what happens when it is? I lived through that 20 years ago, but computers weren’t as vital for communication then.

Yesterday my neighbor stopped by for a visit with her puppy. I hadn’t left the apartment all day, thanks to the weather and my pain. Even just opening the door and feeling that wall of thick, muggy air for a few seconds wasn’t good. Having a visitor felt so good! And the puppy was a darling! Petting him hurt, but it was worth it. They left all too soon. I wish there was a visiting puppy program for the sick.

I am so fortunate. I have a lovely home, a caring family, wonderful friends, and enough food and medicine. But the emotions still engulf me at times.

Unfortunately, my mother called last night at the wrong time. When we started speaking everything was fine. But during the call the pain became worse, and by the end, I was moody and bitchy. I was too busy talking to her and feeling sad and frustrated and overwhelmed to take a step back and recognize and work through my feelings of sadness and frustration and overwhelm. So I took it out on her.

And my mom, being the amazing woman that she is, listened, expressed sympathy, and never blamed me for acting like a selfish child. She has chronic pain too, though it’s less disabling, and I think she understood.

Halfway through writing this post, my mom called. She said that she wanted to do something for me and I could not say no. She is going to come to my apartment one day and clean it for me. I can’t clean it myself, and the cleaners I hired didn’t work out, so I have been feeling stuck. She wants to do this to help me.

I have so many negative emotions right now. This thumb pain is upsetting to me in ways I haven’t been able to express to myself yet, much less write down here. But having my mom in my corner definitely helps. Even if sometimes I still get bitchy. After all, I’m only human. And I’m scared.


The importance of community

June 15, 2017

Last week I saw my primary care doctor for my annual exam. At the end of the visit, he brought up the fact that I was on disability. He said that only 5% of people ever manage to get off of disability benefits. He said that it was important to find activities to keep busy and productive. Then he talked about the isolation that can come when you don’t have a job to get you out of the house, and you don’t feel up to going out a lot. He said it was important to have community, and it’s important to make an effort to create that community.

He’s so right. (And I love that he’s having this conversation with his patients!)

I assured him that I have community. If he only knew.

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I have worked hard to make friends and build community. It doesn’t come easily or naturally to me. I’m an introvert by nature, and my health issues have made me even more of an introvert. Not being able to go out often doesn’t help either. But it’s important to me to have friends and community in my life, so I made it happen.

For me, the key has been to go for quality instead of quantity. I don’t have hundreds of friends, but the ones I have are good ones. Acquaintances are often happy to help me because they see me helping others.

That’s why when I needed to borrow a wheelchair recently, I had 3 offers to lend me one, plus 2 other folks suggested local organizations that lend out medical equipment for free. When I needed someone to push that wheelchair, I was able to post on Facebook and get some offers from friends and also from acquaintances I barely know. Because I have that community.

Sometimes it’s hard. I put myself out there, which means I’m often asked for help and I need to say no. Thankfully, most people understand my limitations. And they appreciate it all the more when I volunteer. A friend is going out of town and leaving her dog at home, with the dog walker coming by many times each day to walk him. It’s not perfect, but it’s the best they can do. I said that if she gives me her key (which I am getting today), I’ll pop in to visit him a couple times, just so he has someone to cuddle with. She was amazed. To me, this is just a nice thing to do for a friend. I won’t go by every day, but on the days I’m in the neighborhood, I’ll bring a book and read while her dog gets some important snuggles. It won’t be the first time I’ve done this for a traveling friend. (And let’s be honest, while it’s an inconvenience, I certainly won’t hate doggie snuggles!)

I belong to a chronic pain support group. Having people who really understand the struggle makes such a difference. It was one of those members who ultimately lent me her wheelchair, and even put it in the car for me because I couldn’t. I do a lot for that group, too. I created and run a Facebook group so we can communicate easily between meetings. I do other behind-the-scenes tasks, too. It doesn’t take much time, but it helps people. And they notice, and want to help me in return.

It’s so easy to become self-involved these days, and more so if you’re in pain or fatigued or dealing with other symptoms all day every day. Believe me, I know. And so many people lose their friends and their families when they become sick. So I am hugely grateful for the incredible people in my life. My parents and other relatives are super supportive, my childhood friends have stood by me and help when they can, and newer friends are ready to step up and help. Acquaintances do more than I would have expected. Even strangers offer to help, thanks to all of my work in the chronic illness community online (both this anonymous blog and a lot of work under my real name.) I am so fortunate that I began building that community long before I needed it, and that I still have it.

I think we all need to heed my doctor’s words and find a way to build community. It will look different for everyone. Some people will reach out to friends, others will go to events through meetup.com (I’ve built some great community that way, too!) and others will do it all online. Whatever it looks like for you, I hope you are able to build the community that you need and that will support you, just as you will support them whenever you can.

What about you? How do you build community? Please share in the comments so we can learn from each other!


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