A Letter from Quarantine…

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Hello Family & Friends!

Greetings!… just wanted to give you an update on me & my COVID19 prepping.

As you might have guessed, I’m in the highest risk group for this virus. Two weeks ago, my doctor advised me to self-isolate for my own protection— which I have been doing. Given the muscular & pulmonary weakness that comes with Spinal Muscular Atrophy, my mortality rate for COVID19 would be elevated. I’ve limited visitors & each person entering my home must be symptom-free & must wash their hands for 30 seconds. (They also must be able to juggle and play the lute.)

My anxiety is really high. No matter how mentally prepared you are, it’s still tough to process this life-threatening reality. Just like it’s difficult to process why everyone is hoarding all the toilet paper. COVID19 is a respiratory virus, not explosive diarrhea. (We’re not all going to die of dysentery like on Oregon Trail.)

But, nonetheless, I’ve settled in at home for what will be a long, loooong period of months. Having SMA has taught me many things… the main of which being the ability to plan & organize. And to rationalize.

I’ve got a respiratory arsenal on-hand— all the gizmos that help me stay healthy. I am better equipped to handle COVID19 in my own home than most hospitals. And that’s a fact.

Frankly, I’ve been preparing for COVID19 my entire life. This is the crazy scenario those of us with SMA plan for. (Too bad ya’ll with normal-working bodies can’t do the same!!)

What we’re doing right now, as a country, is trying to slow the spread of the virus. It’s called “Flattening The Curve.” So, these next weeks, my risk of infection are actually lower. I know that sounds weird. But, it’s true. (Ya’ll are washing your hands so well at the moment, that I secretly wish you’d do it every flu season!)

I mean, really.

But, this sustained diligence won’t last. Once the curve is hopefully ‘flattened’ by all these extreme measures, that doesn’t mean the virus stops circulating. It will keep going in the months after that.

People will eventually get complacent… they’ll stop washing their hands so much & these serious public containment measures will lift.

And, that’s when the chance of me catching this will increase.

So, when you think about COVID19, remember this important fact:

This is a marathon, not a sprint.

This is a marathon, not a sprint.

When I think of COVID19, I’m thinking in terms of months. Not weeks. Many, many months. I’m calibrating my brain to this reality. So, be sure you do the same.

Tell your friends that these drastic measures now are to slow the tide of infections… so that science & the medical system can keep up— can save lives.

My goal is that by the time COVID19 comes to me— whether it be in 1 month, 3 months, or 6 months, science will have more data on this. That protocols of treatment will be figured out & implemented. I’m in an online group with SMA people from around the world. We are sharing data, ideas, and science with each other— in realtime. And once people with SMA start getting COVID19 (which will happen, eventually), we will learn from each other how to fight it.

In the meantime, I’ll be here, playing the “long game.” Keeping my contingency preparations in motion… and spreading awareness in every way I can.

So, if you need me, you’ll know where to find me! ❤️

Elizabette

P.S. Don’t suck. Be smart. Wash your hands.

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Aliens, Shrinking Potions & Ten Long Months

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Three weeks ago, I finally got my new wheelchair. And, when I use the word “finally” I really mean it— for I began the insane process of getting a new motorized wheelchair over ten months ago. That’s a considerable amount of time. It doesn’t take folks this long to buy a new car— which is surprising given my new wheelchair costs just as much as a Ford Focus.

But, honestly, ten months is a long time to spend working on getting a medical device that helps you, well— survive. Try imagining all the things that could be accomplished in a similar amount of time. Have you ever thought about this? Well, I have. Because I’ve had ten months to do so.

So, here goes.

Elizabette’s List Of Things That Take Ten Months To Do

  • You can gestate a full-sized human baby. Should you desire to do so, this also includes a few extra weeks to breastfeed. (Hopefully, you live in a society that allows you to do it freely in public and not hidden away in a cave like a troll.)
  • You could learn a new language.
  • If you’re a white man, you could go on a 16th-century ocean voyage around the world to “discover” places that already exist.
  • You could plant, grow and harvest a vegetable garden.
  • You could serve a full prison sentence for raping an unconscious woman. (But, don’t worry— you’ll probably get out in only three months.)
  • You could become a licensed electrician.
  • You could write a book.
  • If you’re Donald Trump, you could read a book… Just kidding! (He doesn’t read.)

But, instead of doing any of these things, I spent ten months of my life jumping the bureaucratic hoops to get a new motorized wheelchair.

It would be natural to think that I’d be ecstatic when the new wheelchair finally arrived. But, I wasn’t. This isn’t to say that I wasn’t happy. I was, of course. Obviously. But, the arrival of the new wheelchair heralded the most critical (and hopefully final!) stage of the process.

Making sure the wheelchair fits.

You’d think this would be a given. That all the measurements taken by the wheelchair provider would be accurate. That it would be simple to fit me into a wheelchair that was custom-built for me.

But, it is not.

Three weeks ago, when my new wheelchair rolled into my house, right away I saw a problem. It was over three inches too wide. That’s a lot. Yes, my ass is big. But, no, it’s not that big.

“Uhm… just wondering… did Howard Taft order a wheelchair? And, if so, did I get it by mistake?”

The wheelchair technician, Raul, looked at me— then looked at the new chair:

“Yeah. You’re right, this chair is way too big.”

I felt dread pool in my gut. My mind began to run with an assortment of cuss words. In various languages. (Don’t forget, I had ten months to work on my vocabulary.) Would they have to send the damn chair back? Would we have to start again? Was there a chance that I wouldn’t cry in despair??

My spiraling thoughts were interrupted when Raul said:

“Don’t worry. I think I can shrink it down.”

Really?”

I was dubious. It was unlikely he carried shrinking potion from Alice in Wonderland in his toolbox.

Over the next hour, he dissembled my new wheelchair in the middle of my living room. Pieces were scattered everywhere. It was like a really expensive LEGO set had barfed all over the carpet. Then, we began to strategize new ways to use the existing parts. Using different configurations. And, slowly, my new wheelchair began to take shape.

Nearly three hours after arrival, we did it. I was seated, driving, and fairly comfortable, in my new (smaller!) wheelchair. It was a feat of engineering, creativity and luck— which, come to think of it, is the essence of life with a complex disability. But, for while the chair is functional and comfortable, there’s a small (yet, large!) difference. I’m sitting over an inch lower than I was in my old wheelchair.

Another key part of life with a disability? Learning to adapt. This skill is essential. And, unfortunately, in a world that’s not always accessible, it’s a survival tool, as well.

An inch may not seem like a big difference. But, when you have everything in your daily life and routine adjusted to a very specific height, this is significant. For example, imagine if aliens came down from outer space with a technology that transferred your head onto another person’s body. How would you feel?

Probably pretty awkward.

(And, no, Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones won’t be able to save you.)

Adjusting to the new wheelchair feels very much like that. Even with most aspects being similar (if not nearly identical!), it’s still a challenge. In fact, I’m currently typing this on my desk that I had to recalibrate to fit the new ‘me.’

Honestly, it’s going fairly well, but oddly, on my computer keyboard, I’m now having trouble reaching the key for the number ‘nine.’ I’m sure I’ll figure out an adaptation for it eventually, though. But, in the meantime, I suppose I could refer to the number as 8+1. Although, if I’m feeling especially tired, it might be best if I spell it as 5+4 since those keys are closer together.

We’ll see. It’s not as if numbers are all that important, anyway.

Nonetheless, I must roll onward in this new set of wheels. If you see me, though, please don’t comment on how I’ve grown shorter (yes, this has already happened to me twice).

Also, just because the top of my head is now more within your reach, don’t take that as an invitation to pat me on the head like a cocker spaniel. And definitely don’t ruffle my hair the way your uncle Tony greets every child he meets under the age of 8+1.

Because I really hate that.

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Facing Voldemort

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When you’re disabled, you learn to adapt… tweak… make-do. These skills are essential, because as much as the modern, progressive world likes to think it’s ‘woke as **ck‘ — it’s really not. Full inclusion of disabled people in society is a long way off, and these issues barely register on even the most liberal political agendas. In fact, during this election season’s rounds of televised Democratic debates, I haven’t heard one of the 318 presidential candidates even say the word ‘disability.’ Considering disabled Americans are the largest minority group in the country— one that spans race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic background— you’d think it would come up. At least once. (Just like Bernie Sanders yells and shakes his fists at another candidate at least once a debate.)

It’s possible the candidates are just being thoughtless in ignoring disability issues in the debates— like when careless people forget to put another roll of toilet paper in the bathroom after they’ve used the last square of Charmin. But, perhaps there is another, more sinister meaning. What if they are subconsciously afraid of saying the word ‘disability‘ aloud because then it acknowledges that we actually exist? And, maybe, just maybe, they are frightened of us? It could be possible. After all, this was why everyone was reluctant to say Voldemort’s name aloud in Harry Potter.

Let’s not forget that even The Ministry of Magic discouraged folks from saying it at Hogwarts. They worried that if someone voiced the name of Voldemort, the most dreaded wizard in the land, it would give him the power and recognition needed to rise up. And that was definitely not okay… because then all the normal wizards would have to face the fact that they were only one Death-Eater attack away from a nursing home run by Hufflepuffs.

So, yeah, you can see why they’d prefer to pretend like we don’t exist. It’s scary to imagine the power potentially wielded by 1 in 5 Disabled Americans. Because not even the mighty Teamsters Union can muster these kinds of numbers— even though Joe Biden desperately wishes that they could.

I think maybe it’s time for us to be a little scary. Be a little loud. Because we are not only fighting for ourselves. We are fighting for everyone. After all, we are also the only minority group that anyone can become member— at any time. Plus, if you live long enough, you’re probably eventually going to need the homecare services we are fighting so hard for, too.

I hate to break it to you, but not even the best Patronus charm can do a damned thing about that fact. Eventually, you’re going to need someone to help you get out of bed in the morning. You’re going to need someone to help you prepare your meals. Hell, you’re probably going to need help wiping your own ass. But, here’s the thing: unless you meet the impossibly stringent & poverty-driven Medicaid guidelines, you won’t qualify for homecare services.

Despite what you may believe, Medicare and private medical insurances currently do not cover homecare. So, you could lose your house, your retirement and all the things you worked your entire life to achieve just to pay for medically-necessary care costs.

Thinking of just going to a nursing home? Good luck with that— the care received in institutionalized settings are substandard, dangerous, and far, far more expensive than the costs of providing care in your own home… in your own community.

Given that homecare is cheaper and safer than institutionalized care, isn’t it surprising that it’s not covered by Medicare and private insurances? Wouldn’t logic say that it should be covered? Well, yes. But, denial is a powerful thing. And the denial of the notion— the reality— that anyone could become disabled at any time in their life is even more powerful. It’s no wonder no one wanted to say Voldemort’s name in Harry Potter. That was some scary shit, yes?

But, if these services existed— and were more available— maybe disability (and even old age!) wouldn’t be so fucking scary to everyone. Maybe then we could change the whole narrative around it.

However, first, a narrative must begin. And, to do that, someone needs to talk about it. But, I’m afraid that with the current slate of presidential candidates, that’s not likely to happen. Why?

Well, the top contenders Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and—yes, Donald Trump— are all over the age of 70. Given society’s subconscious aversion to disability and old age, these four main contenders definitely do not want to draw attention to how old they actually are. (I mean, no one wants to yell Voldemort in a crowded cafeteria, do they?)

Even though you’d think these presidential contenders would be ideally suited to discuss these issues (given they are closer to the age of needing these services), there’s NO damn way they are going talk about that. Just look how long it took Bernie Sanders’ campaign to acknowledge his recent heart attack? Look how evasive Donald Trump is in releasing his full medical records? (And, no, it’s definitely not because he’s got the most greatest health in the history of all American presidents— including, of course, all the leaders of the most bigly and powerful nations in Earth history.)

So, who is going to do the talking, if not us? Who is going to make people uncomfortable so that they can face the reality of their own human frailty? That they will need help someday? I guess that falls to us disabled folks.

This election season, perhaps you should give this some thought. Who will best fight for you when you need it most?

Because, like it or not, Voldemort is coming.

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Birthday Evolution

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When I was young, I hated the attention I received on my birthday. I hated when people would sing me the “birthday song.” I would whimper. I would cry. And, if my weak SMA muscles would have allowed it, I would have slithered into a ball under a table at the first note of the famous tune.

Many people that know me now would be surprised by this. But, it’s very true. If, on my birthday, I could have burrowed into a hole in the ground like El Chapo evading the Federales, I would have done it.

Por supuesto.

Being a small kid with a visible disability, you always get looked at differently. Always. Even as a tiny child, you sense the eyes that follow your every move. The assessing. The wondering.

The what is wrong with that little girl? gaze that becomes so familiar. While it’s not a scary experience, it is an annoying one.

If you’re wondering what that look is actually like, here’s how I would describe it. You know those ASPCA commercials with that mournful Sarah MacLachlan song? The ones with her singing “Angel” as they show a montage of sick and undersized puppies that will die if you don’t donate $15 a month? You know that sad (nearly tearful) look that your face gets when you see that commercial?

That’s the face I’m talking about.

So, yeah… pull it together, dude.

Anyway… when you’re already ‘different’… and used to being recognized by many as ‘different,’ you don’t want any more attention than absolutely necessary. So, your birthday is yet another extra spotlight that shines upon you each October.

I felt this way for many years. I didn’t want the additional fuss, or the attention, that came with that day. I had enough of it already.

But, as I approached my 30th birthday, a birthday that many doctors had predicted that I may never reach, I began to feel very differently about it. It evolved in my mind. It felt like a milestone. An achievement. A mark of a battle that I was winning.

And, suddenly, celebrating my birthday became something that I wanted to do. It was something that I didn’t want to tuck into a drawer and pretend didn’t exist. I wouldn’t be like Rudolph Giuliani ignoring a Congressional subpoena.

I would face it. And enjoy it.

So, now, here I am, years later, on my birthday, proud to be alive and proud to be a part of this world. It’s been a lot of hard work getting here (and I’ve had a lot of help along the way)— but, I did it.

Happy Birthday to me.

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(Yes, that’s a pumpkin spice latte. Duh.)

Becoming Oliver Twist

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Life with a complex disability, like SMA, is obviously challenging. It takes a great deal of physical, emotional— but, most importantly, logistical— strength to power through each day. Your brain always has to be 2 or 3 steps ahead in order to anticipate challenges that life, and this very inaccessible world, love to throw at you. It’s exhausting. It’s like playing an endless game of Whack-A-Mole at Chuck E. Cheese. You know those little heads are going to pop up somewhere. So, all you can do is keep slamming the mallet down on the board hoping you earn enough tickets to buy a Slinky at the counter.

This constant state of preparedness is a necessary evil. It’s the thing that makes it possible for me to get out of bed in the morning. To have the ability to do the work I do, and I accomplish what I need to accomplish— all while balancing my complex medical needs.

As I’ve discussed frequently before, my custom power wheelchair is a big part of this effort. It’s the most important tool in my life. It’s the object that makes my life— my independence— possible. At the beginning of this year, I began the arduous process of getting a new wheelchair. Medicare requires that many steps be completed before an order can even be processed. Initial Visit With Doctor. Evaluation from Special Physical Therapist. Consult with Wheelchair Provider. Assessment With Doctor.

Each of these steps must be done in a certain order, the documents must be signed and authorized by all parties, and all of it must be done sequentially. Like a really complicated, and really French, pastry recipe. The foofy, pretentious kind. The kind that takes hours to make, you eat in two bites, and leave you hungry afterward.

It’s a fucking nightmare, frankly.

I have a Type A personality. I like to get shit done. This trait has come in handy with my SMA, because such attention-to-detail is why I’m still alive and thriving 35 years after most doctors thought I would be dead.

But, this ‘wheelchair vortex of hell’ doesn’t always reward such preparedness. Because, no matter how on top of things I am, I am still at the mercy of a large medical bureaucracy. The bureaucracy lets unsigned forms sit on desks. The bureaucracy will deny a claim because one date is mistyped on one form. The bureaucracy won’t pick their own nose without a memo telling them which finger to use.

Just a few weeks ago, (but, nearly nine months into the entire process!), Medicare finally authorized my request for my new wheelchair. This was after several paperwork kinks and delays that nearly made me sit in a corner and cry. But, with this authorization, the DME (durable medical equipment) company was then able to place the order with the manufacturers.

You’d think I’d be ecstatic. You’d think I’d be over-the-moon with happiness… you know, just like R. Kelly is in a room of underage girls.

But, I decidedly was not. For I knew that my current wheelchair had to survive until the new chair arrived— which could still take months. And that was the biggest gamble of all.

Because, you see, Medicare would not authorize repairs to an existing wheelchair while a new wheelchair is being ordered. So, I would be majorly SOL if my current wheelchair took a crap in the meantime. Therefore, each bureaucratic delay— each kink that I had experienced in the process— increased the probability of this happening.

And, yesterday, the laws of probability— the laws of mathematics— finally caught up with me. A “RIGHT MOTOR FAULT” error message brought my wheelchair to a halt.

This isn’t the first time this has happened during my wheelchair-using life. In fact, with this wheelchair, alone, I have had to have the motors changed FOUR TIMES. Yes, that’s right. So, when I saw this “RIGHT MOTOR FAULT” error message, I instantly knew that in about a week, my life was seriously going to go down the toilet until I could get new motors installed.

With the arrival of my new wheelchair nowhere in sight, and the necessity of having a functioning wheelchair, I had to do a painful thing. I asked the DME company to order me a new set of motors. I agreed to pay the hefty price. Because, this wheelchair is my basic tool of life, and without it, I can’t function. The DME company understands my pain and kindly agreed to give me a cut rate, but it’s still more money than most people pay for their first shitty car.

To be honest, I actually cried. I sat and cried because I was going to have to find a thousand dollars to fix a device that allows me to live.

It’s demoralizing. And it makes me feel very, very small. In an inaccessible world that’s already stacked against me— a world where I have to be smarter, wittier, and more prepared than everyone else— I still have to scramble for this most basic thing.

But, I don’t have a choice. So, I applied, and received, a disability grant from NMD United to help me pay for some of my replacement motors— and I set up a GoFundMe to cover the remainder of the cost.

The sad thing is, I shouldn’t have to do any of these things. This wheelchair is a medical device. It’s a lifesaving device. I have Medicare. I have a private supplemental insurance plan, too.

I shouldn’t have to peddle to others for something like this. No one with a disability should have to do this— yet, we are forced to do it everyday, in some form or another. It’s so Dickensian. So two-hundred-years-ago.

Yet, nonetheless, here I am, like little Oliver Twist, holding out my small pail—

Please, Sir, I want some more.

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Note: If you are disabled, and have experienced similar problems getting coverage for your specialized wheelchair repairs, please write in & share your story. We must try to speak out when we can. And speak loud. Wheelchairs are more than “durable medical equipment” — they are life-saving and sustaining.

Yes, We’re 20 Years Older Now

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The brain has the amazing ability to compartmentalize time in a way that can make us forget how much time has actually passed. For example, when I’m watching Netflix, my brain will ignore the fact that I’ve watched 3 hours of Grace & Frankie. My brain will swim in this blissful interlude until something cracks it— like the window that pops up on the Netflix app. You know the one I’m talking about. The Netflix window that asks if you are “still there” because so much time has passed since you began watching that it thinks you might be dead.

Personally, I hate this Netflix feature. My brain doesn’t want a reminder of how long I’ve been watching TV. I don’t want someone judging my life choices like that. After all, if I really wanted someone to judge me, the best way to do that is to give birth to a baby. Because then you can watch the entire world criticize every choice you make as a mother for the next 18 years.

Anyway, in addition to compartmentalizing time, the brain is also really good at making us forget how old we actually are. Recently, my high school class celebrated our 20th reunion at the amazing event venue, The Century, owned by our classmate, Erin. Once arriving at the reunion, the glamour of the surroundings was a blast of reality. While my brain understood that 20 years had passed, it hadn’t really understood that we were 20 years older until that very moment. The twinkling lights, the crisp table linens, and the fancy cheeseball shaped into the numbers ‘1999’ were glaringly grown-up. I suddenly realized we weren’t people that had a slice of pepperoni and a soda from Pizza Plus for lunch anymore. We were going to have caprese skewers with aged balsamic. We were going to eat an adult dinner using adult dishes at adult tables.

On the cocktail menu, I saw Gin Rickey. My newly-awakened brain recognized Gin as a very grown-up thing to drink. So, I ordered one. And then I proceeded to put a 14-inch red straw that I stole from a movie theatre into the drink (yes, I may be Adult Elizabette, but some things will never change). My cripply SMA ass will always need to use a straw in a drink. Even though my hands are a little stronger now with Spinraza, they will never be strong enough to lift a cocktail in fancy glassware handcrafted by some dude in Germany.

Another signal to my brain that time had passed? Suddenly most of the guys in my class weren’t recognizable. They were taller. They had facial hair. They had wives that made them wear pants that actually fit. It was very jarring.

My friends and I began to not-so-secretly flip through pages of the yearbooks on display like we were identifying suspects in a criminal lineup:

“Who is that guy over by the balsamic caprese skewers?”

“I don’t know.”

“His chin is bigger than the one in this picture.”

“Yeah— I don’t think he’s our man.”

But, it was when a big-smiled guy approached me with a hearty, “ELIZABETTE!” and a hug that I realized that I had an extra disadvantage in this game of high-school reunion Guess Who. I couldn’t recognize the guy hugging me. He looked nothing like anyone in my class. His chin wasn’t familiar. His pants were appropriately-sized.

But, he clearly knew me.

While being me has many perks (see HERE), one thing is very lacking— anonymity. It’s super obvious who I am. I was the only person in a wheelchair in my entire high school. In fact, I was the first person with a significant physical disability to graduate from Patterson High. So, I could literally have had a Caitlyn Jenner-style transition and they would still pick me out of the crowd.

It’s important to note that this lack of anonymity also makes it impossible for me to commit a serious crime. Don’t believe me? Imagine this:

Police Detective: “So, do you have any idea who may have committed this robbery?

Bank Teller: “Well, she was wearing a mask… but she was driving a fancy black electric wheelchair.

Police Detective: “And you say she was armed?

Bank Teller: “Yeah, but her hands were too weak to even point the gun at me. I felt kinda bad, so I gave her the money anyway.

This lack of anonymity did nothing to help me in this moment at my reunion, however. I was losing this round of Guess Who. As he pulled back from his hug, he said, “It’s me— Gilbert!”

“No-you-are-not!” This slipped out before I could help myself. Like when I cuss in front of small children or loudly burp after I eat cucumbers. It’s just not my fault when things like that happen.

My brain was not reconciling the evidence presented. This was Adult Gilbert twenty years in the future. Not little teenage Gilbert. It was as if, once again, my brain was desperately trying not to acknowledge how long I had been watching Netflix. It wanted to ignore the little pop-up window on the app insinuating that only a dead person would be watching TV for this long.

A little later that evening as I began eating my fancy dinner of chicken in a mushroom cream sauce, I started to think that the being-20-years-older-thing has its perks, too. We are more mature. Our clothing choices are better. And, the food is definitely more sophisticated than back in 1999. And, while it could have been the gin fueling those thoughts (which is possible), I still suddenly couldn’t wait to see what the next reunion would bring.

And at least there’s one thing for certain: I still won’t have to worry about not being recognized…

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