Monday, December 10, 2012

Addo Elephant Park - Accessible Big-5

2012 was not a good year, not the least of which was my managing to break a femur which rendered me housebound for five months. However, you all know us well enough to realise that life’s little challenges don't get us down and we therefore decided to end the year on a high note by testing the proverbial travel waters up the Garden Route to Addo Elephant NP. En-route we first enjoyed a mellow escape to Storms River Mouth which, for the first time ever, did not live up to its name and provided beautiful calm weather enabling us to walk along the shoreline and watch the hyrax's (dassies) playing on the lawns and over the rocks.

At Addo we enjoyed some fantastic elephant encounters, and as a bonus saw two big male lions on the last day, a first for us in the park. The first elephant encounter was really exciting and we had to trust ourselves, and the elephants, and just enjoy the moment. At one stage we must have had about fifteen elephants, one of which looked no more than a couple of days old, standing around our car (both sides, front and back), all within less than an arm's length of our vehicle. Every window and every mirror was filled with elephants. They monitored us very closely since we were stationary, with the engine turned off, and elephants had approached us, not the other way around. We had to believe that they would not view us as a threat. In a second close encounter one teenager decided to test how well our rear bumper was attached to the car, and then went on to similarly examine the tail light, all this while Loretta was filming a youngster blowing bubbles in a waterhole on the side of the road.

It is the elephants which keep us coming back to Addo, but what helps to make it such an enjoyable destination is the fact that so much of the park is accessible to wheelchairs. We have stayed in their “chalet” accommodation before, but more recently have discovered that their “cottage” accommodation is more suitable for a married couple. The cottage consists of a single spacious room with a kitchenette, small dining table, double bed, and a separate en-suite fully accessible bathroom. Bookings are best handled through SANParks who have a particular lady in charge of all disabled accommodation (Sinah Makgala, Tel. 012 426 5306, She is both helpful and efficient and does an excellent job of ensuring that the facilities are not abused by those for which they are not intended.

Inside the game viewing area of the park there is a large enclosed picnic site called “Jack's Rest”, named after an old rhino that used to frequent the area. A number of the picnic areas within the enclosure are wheelchair accessible, and there is an accessible ablution block as well. The tar roads within the park are excellent, and the gravel roads are kept in very good condition, all of which makes for a pleasant game viewing experience. Outside of the game area the park's reception, shop, restaurant, exhibition centre, waterhole viewing site, and separate underground viewing site are all accessible.

In Addo you have a “big five” game park (elephant, black rhino, lion, buffalo, leopard), in a malaria free region of the country, which accommodates disabled travellers. A destination of choice for us!

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Right Proportions

Is it my imagination or did the Paralympics this year generate more interest than in the past? Perhaps it was due to the fact that our time zone coincided with the Olympic venue, or perhaps the media coverage was better than years gone by? I found myself enjoying them more as a pure sporting event rather than a spectacle. This year the Paralympics appeared to have all the ingredients for success. Fantastic venues, colour, variety, controversy, and achievements.

I for one welcome the controversy surrounding Oscar Pistorius. In a strange way I felt proud that the South African star was at the centre of things. So often we see athletes from other countries setting standards and pushing the envelope, this time we were doing it, or more specifically Oscar was doing it. I was pleased he voiced his concern following the shock 200m defeat. Perhaps the timing could have been better but the point needed to be made, and it was, in no uncertain terms, and set the tone for the rest of the championships. I was sorry that Oscar felt that he needed to apologise for his statements, if anything the International Paralympic Committee should have been the one apologising. The research and development of prosthetic sporting equipment has seen rapid development in recent years, while the sports administrators have been dragging their proverbial heels on how to manage them for some time, hence they are now finding themselves to be somewhat short of the winning line. The question of the length of carbon fibre blades has been an issue a long time coming, in this case it happened to bubble over into the public domain during the Paralympics.

It all comes down to proportions. This was brought home to me whilst watching Oscar win his 400m heat, and was reinforced again during the 400m final. The camera followed him down the home straight, keeping pace with Oscar as he ran. What struck me was how “able-bodied” he looked, and the fact that he had a genuine natural rhythm to his running. This was in stark contrast to some of his competitors who appeared to be barely in control of their legs throughout the race. No doubt Oscar’s performance is due to his intensive training, but a large part of his running style has to do with the fact that his blades are in proportion to the length his legs would be if he had them. Therein lies the key. There is no issue with a single leg amputee because the prosthetic leg has to be made in proportion to the other, normal leg. With a double amputee however one does not have that limitation, but, and it is an important but, there are physical proportions to take into account. Make them too short and one looks stunted, make them too long and one begins to resemble a running spider!  An orthopaedic surgeon would be able to tell us exactly what the proportions of a person’s leg would be depending on the size of their upper body. There are accepted norms that are well documented which give the proportions of upper body to hips, hips to knees, and knees to feet. These are the proportions which Oscar had to conform to in order to participate in the able-bodied Olympics, and in my opinion that decision was correct. The dimensions and construction of his blades sparked a tremendous amount of controversy but I believe that the decisions taken have borne fruit in a positive manner which could not have been imagined at the time.

If prosthetic dimensions are allowed to be extended beyond the physical norm we run the risk of the Paralympics, or any disabled sporting competitions, becoming freak shows. The potential is there for disproportionately long legs for the runners, and outlandishly long arms for the javelin throwers. In some strange way however I think a sense of normality returned during that Paralympic 400m final race when a steady, controlled and rhythmical run triumphed over what we are quite an obviously abnormal prosthetic limbs. I imagine that a few sporting prosthetic researchers might have gone home to their drawing boards and decided that while some of their running blades appeared revolutionary on paper they were perhaps not practical on the racetrack.

I admire Oscar for his willingness and determination to challenge the accepted norm for disabled sports people. His place is secure in history as the first disabled athlete to run in the Olympics, but I believe his greatest victory has been to run in the Paralympics in a manner befitting of an able-bodied sprinter.

Monday, August 27, 2012

My Top Gear Top Tip (with apologies to the fans of Top Gear)

I have a theory that we are able to think more clearly when lying down due to the improved blood flow to the brain. The ways of the world begin to make sense, and how things interface and work together becomes a whole lot clearer from this horizontal view. I recently spent a rather a lot longer lying down than I would have liked, whilst recovering in hospital from a broken femur. With a lot of time on hand, and very little to focus on, I noticed that my hospital bed was designed in the United Kingdom, manufactured in China (isn't everything?) and was obviously being used in South Africa. If ever there was an example of globalisation this was it, and I was lying on it. I have seen this cross pollination of expertise elsewhere, most notably in my power chair, whose frame is made in America, the motors in China, the electronics from New Zealand, and believe it or not the rubber tyres from Russia! But I digress.

I got to know my hospital bed quite well, and together we travelled the highways and byways of the hospital en route to x-rays, theatre, and various other fascinating destinations. One day, upon returning to the ward, the matron and her entourage walked in and she proudly pronounced “my bed” to be “her bed”! Now I knew instantly by the way she carried herself that this was the matron, and she was not a lady to be trifled with. She had all the makings of a classic hospital matron. A portly build, ample bosom, broad shoulders upon which resided a pair of epaulettes bristling with bling, a firm voice and a steely look in the eye. The porter who had just pushed me back into my ward looked somewhat startled, and a little intimidated, at her proclamation. She immediately launched into a series of questions about how he felt the bed handled around the hospital. This caught him somewhat off guard, he stammered out a casual reply whereupon she dismissed him almost immediately. All the time of course I was lying there, listening to and watching this fascinating exchange.

With the porter scurrying out the ward I decided this was the time to make myself heard, and commented about the fact that since I had been lying in a bed for a number of days at that point I could possibly comment as to its behaviour. This seemed to break the ice and the matron proved to be a lot more approachable than her formal exterior. There followed a long and somewhat strange discussion about the comfort, cornering abilities, steering, braking and fittings of my global bed. For a time we were transported into some sort of parallel medical motoring show universe! We discussed speed wobbles down long corridors, tracking to the left or right, understeer and oversteer, flappy paddle ceramic wheel brakes, and the proper location of controls and switches. All of this was carefully absorbed by the matron who appeared to have a mission in life to create the ultimate hospital bed, the GTI of medical automation. In me she had found a kindred spirit, and we immediately became friends. In return for my input regarding the driving abilities of a hospital bed I quizzed her about the amazing collection of different beds on show in the various wards. I always believed that a bed, was a bed, was a bed, but it appears that those designers in the United Kingdom are kept quite busy coming up with new models. A small change to the headlights here, a tweak to the aerodynamics there, and a firming up of the suspension over there. Of course all of the adjustments are electronic these days. Gone are the days of the crank handle at your feet end which could be used to raise your head. That is all been replaced by touch controls, and computer operated mattresses which inflate and deflate automatically in order to relieve pressure. Pretty soon the porters will be out of business when the new models are released with satellite navigation allowing the bed to find its own way around the corridors.

I sadly parted company with that bed during a brief sojourn in the operating theatre. I encountered the matron again a few days later. She found me, but had now lost her bed. The last I saw of her she was wandering the wards somewhat frustrated, searching for the English born, Chinese raised, and South African domiciled symbol of globalisation.

So my Top Gear top tip is, “If you want to know about the cornering ability of a hospital bed ask your nearest matron!” And on that bombshell we come to the end of the show. Goodnight!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Bearable Lightness Of Being Me

My “Bearable Lightness” is a far cry from Milan Kundera’s “Unbearable Lightness of Being”, free from the deep social philosophies and political clouds of the Czechoslovak Communist period in 1968. Indeed my experience really is about lightness and freedom as opposed to darkness and complexity.

One of the effects of my condition is that I am extremely thin. Extremely with a capital E! I keep waiting for Hollywood to phone asking me to play the lead role in a starved prisoner of war movie. They wouldn't need any special effects, lighting or make up, I would just fit right in! Someone once told me that dystrophy was known as “stickman’s disease”. Well, that's just me, a stickman, on a diet!

This skinny-ness of course comes hand-in-hand with lightweight, something which mostly works in my favour. My slim profile enables me to use a very narrow wheelchair which in turn translates into one which can enter, exit, and navigate confined spaces very easily. My low weight saves me from the dangers posed by pressure sores and extended seating. Every so often this (s)lightness of being leads to some interesting interactions.

Once in a while I come across someone who feels that my skinny condition is somehow self-inflicted, apparently through a bad choice of diet. I, of course, know this to be untrue but when some folk get an idea in their head it is impossible to budge it and they are best left to run their course. When I was admitted to hospital in 1977 for a Harrington Rod spinal fusion operation the senior nursing sister took my light weight is something of a challenge, with a public decree that she would fatten me up during my stay under her care. I have to give her credit for a steadfast determination and bulldog-like unwillingness to give up, but when I did finally check out of hospital nine months later I was exactly the same weight as when I was admitted! I could easily have dismissed her failure on the basis of the awful hospital food which we were subjected to, but my parents had brought me a full supper every night (with pudding!), over and above the lunch and supper that was provided by the hospital, thereby giving her every possible chance of success. In fairness she did concede defeat in a very magnanimous manner, albeit quite baffled as to why all her efforts had been in vain, and with her confidence as a fatter-upper somewhat dented.

My light weight does not bother me in any psychological way and I have never felt the need to be ashamed or hesitant about it. It is the way I am, I've always been, and probably always will be. Not everyone shares this view however, and particularly in the corporate world one is expected to fit into certain predefined criteria. The only time I can recall ever having to be consciously deceptive about my light weight was when I applied for my first job at Old Mutual way back in 1978. They decided that before my job interview I should first be examined by their in-house doctor on the understanding that if he found something disturbing Old Mutual could cancel the interview without obligation to me. These days I am sure there is some law against such activity, but this was 30+ years ago and the times were very different. I had the medical examination and then the time came to weigh me. This presented a challenge to the doctor who was not quite sure how to manage it and ended up leaving me and my father alone in his examination room with a scale. My father weighed himself, then picked me up out of my wheelchair and weighed both of us, not an easy feat as you will discover if you try it yourself. The difference was, naturally, my weight, but when we wrote the figure down on the application form it looked so small that we added 20 kg to the figure! No one questioned it, my interview was successful, I went on to work for the company for the next 10 years, and the rest, as they say, is history.

My wife once confided to me that she always hoped that her husband would carry her over the threshold in the traditionally accepted manner of newlyweds. The choice therefore of me as her life partner made this something of a challenge, but it did present the opportunity for a role reversal. Someone was carried over the threshold, but the carry-er was not me, and the carry-ee was not her!

I have little doubt that my “undernourished” appearance is one of the main contributing factors to my being a target for would be donation givers as has been discussed in previous blog entries. There is nothing quite like the sight of a gaunt disabled person to tug on your purse strings! Whilst the merits or de-merits of this can be discussed in great detail my thoughts on this rather strange aspect of my life are well known. One group of people who never shy away from forthright observation and questioning are children, and the fact that most eight-year-olds have more meat on their bones than I do tends to attract attention from the little devils. Sometime ago I had one youngster ask me quite openly why I was so thin. Quick as a flash a friend replied “because he never ate his vegetables”! There were startled looks all around, and then gales of laughter. It was a moment of brilliance which I am sure paid dividends for many years thereafter every time there may have been some of eating resistance at the dinner table.