Sunday, December 30, 2012

Safe Routes to Health, Part 2: Riding a Wheelchair to Health

Terry and Vickie Hoefer running (LEE GILES III/The Peninsula Gateway)

In Gig Harbor, you can get to the local Starbucks in a wheelchair - but not to the local hospital. Can this be true?

A few days ago, I noticed this headline in the Tacoma News Tribune:  Wheelchair training along roads in Gig Harbor area creates a stir.  Terry Hoefer, a young man who uses an electric wheelchair for mobility, has been training for a marathon, driving his wheelchair along the roads of Gig Harbor accompanied by his mother Vickie, who runs alongside. His dad followed in the car, blinkers flashing. Terry trains in order to build up the strength and endurance to sit upright and operate the wheelchair controls for the long duration of a marathon.  Training was going fine until the family was pulled over by the State Patrol for "obstructing traffic."  It turns out the laws governing electric wheelchairs on roadways are confusing and restrictive:
“Basically, we can ride on the designated bike lanes all over, but we can’t ride on a street that doesn’t have a white line,” [Terry's mother] learned this month.
This means Terry's training route needed modification:
Pierce County helped make a local sidewalk wheelchair-accessible, which means they can still run along Burnham Drive Northwest to the local Starbucks, one of their favorite outings. They’ve stopped using another route, to St. Anthony Hospital, because it doesn’t have a legal shoulder or bike lane. Terry Hoefer has spent a lot of time sick at St. Anthony, and it was fun to see him healthy there on their runs, his mom said.
This story is sad and shocking on so many levels.  Why does a person who uses a wheelchair have to study obscure laws and prevail on local authorities just to make a trip out in the community?

And how is it that you can ride a wheelchair to the local Starbucks - but NOT to the local hospital?

Mobility is essential to health.  Everyone who works in that hospital knows that's true.  Shouldn't everyone be able to get to the hospital - or wherever they want to go - on their own power, whether it's walking, rolling in a wheelchair, or riding a bike?  I hope St. Anthony Hospital takes a look at what Children's Hospital in Seattle has done to create safe routes for walking, biking and wheelchairs near the hospital!

I can relate to Terry's story on another level as well.  I've been caring for my mother-in-law, who needs a wheelchair to get around outside the house.  A few days ago she read in the newspaper about the grand opening of the relocated Museum of History and Industry.  "I'd love to go!" she told me.  So we went.

I helped her into her wheelchair, wheeled her down the street to the bus stop, rolled the wheelchair onto the bus, transferred to the South Lake Union Trolley, and got off half a block from the museum.  We had a great time.  This trip didn't involve any exercise for my mother-in-law - I pushed the wheelchair - but it gave her a chance to be out in the community.  She loved the misty rain on her face and the bustle of the crowds at the museum. And for me, the caregiver, it was a refreshing opportunity to get some exercise and have a change of scene.

I'm sure that Terry's mom benefits as much as Terry does from their outings together. Isolation and lack of exercise are huge challenges of caregiving.  Streets that are safe and accessible for people in wheelchairs are critical for the health of caregivers, too.

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