Getting personal - Life and Travel as an Amputee

Travel rant coming...

I'm not an amputee, but my husband is. He lost both legs below the knee, and shredded his spinal cord 5 years ago while working as a skydiving instructor. Yeah, he's an adrenaline junkie, and he's tough.

The only way he made it through the long recovery was to set the goal of skydiving again, something he achieved 18 months later. In fact, he has achieved almost everything he has set out to do in the last 5 years. His go-to response when people are surprised to see him doing XYZ is, "I can do just about everything I used to do, only a lot slower."

As I type this, we are sitting at a beachside hotel in the south of India at the half-way point of a 15 week journey through India and Thailand. That sounds amazing doesn't it? Well it is, but it's also incredibly challenging.

Our direct experience of backpacking with months of medical supplies on our backs through a country that has no concept of "handicap accessible" probably looks a hell of a lot different than the dreamy vacation you might be imagining. We travel for so long at one time because we move so damn slowly.

Life as an amputee is hard. Every decision of every day has to consider the limitations that prostheses create. For Nick, who had serious stump issues for the first 4 years, every decision of every day during that time could be put into perspective like this:

Imagine you are a new ballerina. You just got fit for your first pair of "pointe" shoes and you can never, ever take them off. Now go live life. (That's my analogy, not Nick's. I'm sure he'd come up with something far more manly than that.)

So here we are in India, nearly five years post accident, and Nick finally has a set of legs that don't give him grief constantly. His skin isn't ripping open and bleeding everywhere like our first trip to Asia together two years ago.

Our days are a lot fuller this time, considering he can walk more than a block at a time. Even so, what inspired me to write this post is that recently, for the first time since his accident, I've heard him complain that what he has to go through on a daily basis is a pain in the ass, and he wishes he didn't have to deal with it. 

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These (totally understandable) complaints have sprung from his desire to get in and out of the ocean as effortlessly as he used to. Until recently he would opt to stay on the sand and miss out because dealing with his legs is such a hassle that it's not even worth the joy he would experience playing in the water with me. But we are here in India, staying in a beach hut, in a town with not much to do other than play in the warm water. It's incredible, and Nick got tired of missing out. 

It took days of experimenting to dial in this fairly streamlined routine: he walks down to the beach lounge chairs in his "everyday" legs, removes them, and then crawls into the ocean from there and swims without his legs.

No legs, no problem

No legs, no problem

We have to remember to bring a few critical items down to the water, otherwise I'm walking back and forth.

  1. The plastic chair from our porch to set at the waters edge so Nick can put his legs back on without having to crawl through dry sand.  
  2. The 1 liter plastic water bottle he fills with fresh water and squeezes through a hole in the cap to rinse the sand off his stumps before putting his legs back on.
  3. A towel to keep his legs from getting soaked as he stands back up in them.
  4. Something to aid his swimming since he can't stand on his feet (either his webbed swim gloves, or a blow-up innertube)

See what he means about it being a pain in the ass? And this is the easiest way we've found! He used to bring his set of swim legs to the beach and try to walk into the ocean. The waves breaking at his calves have made it impossible to get in or out of the ocean without a person holding on each side of him.

Choosing to go with no legs means he's independent with the whole process except for me placing the chair, towel, water bottle, and his legs at the waters edge when he's ready to get out.

Other than issues dealing with swimming, backpacking as an amputee (especially in India) is challenging because many places are not accessible by road, or the roads are uneven, or not even paved.

We have encountered many situations where he's had to walk with his heavy backpack on, or pay someone to carry it for him. The one big perk though, is that at airports he is almost always escorted through to the front of the lines, and people are always offering to help. 

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Nick says he could do this trip easily with just a carry-on bag if he didn't have to pack 3 1/2 months of medical supplies. Not only does he need to plan for the unexpected and bring spare parts for his legs, he also has to bring supplies for the complications he deals with from his spinal cord injury.

These highly specialized supplies simply aren't available in India or Thailand (we've spent hours not only researching, but physically trying to hunt them down) the way shampoo or toothpaste is, so we are sharing the load and carrying a 15 weeks supply in our packs. 

Despite every grievance I've listed here, we are surprised how relatively easy traveling through India has been for the last eight weeks. A destination many would mistake as impossible for a double amputee, Nick has proved that it's not. We thought we would encounter more issues, but his legs have stayed healthy, and we have been met by so much positivity, encouragement, respect, and helpfulness. Travel on!

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