Memories made on holiday or whilst travelling are often those which are most memorable: carefree moments that will be remembered for the rest of your life. As a a spinal cord injury patient, however the prospect of going on holiday can seem near impossible. It’s normal to have fears about being in an unfamiliar environment, how to cope with your symptoms, or mobility issues on transportation. All of these unknown elements can make it all seem far too stressful: the exact opposite of what a holiday should be.
Escaping on holiday and experiencing other cultures is something which should be enjoyed by everyone, regardless of a spinal cord injury. Of course, going on holiday may not be quite as straightforward as for those without SCI, but with the right support and planning can become a reality. In fact, many SCI patients, with varying degrees of injury regularly embark on trips around the world, overcoming the ‘barriers’ which some may think are too difficult to overcome. One such SCI patient, Ian Hosking, who has been injured at C7 for 12 years, has travelled all over the world, from Europe to the US, in spite of his injury. We spoke to him about his experiences whilst travelling, to give us a real insider’s look in how to cope with SCI whilst on holiday.
For anyone, a holiday always takes some degree of planning. For Ian, doing your homework and planning are key to making your trip a success. “You can go anywhere and do anything, you just need to be prepared for it” Ian said, “If you want to go to India for example, which I haven’t, but I know a few SCI patients that have, ask someone who’s actually been there for any tips they can give you”. Facebook groups and forums are a great place to gain some insight, with plenty of fellow patients more than happy to share their stories.
Once you’ve got a bit of background on your chosen destination, your next concern might be where you’re going to stay. When you are used to your home which accommodates and helps to aid you with your injury, you may overlook the sorts of necessary facilities you may need. Of course, this is all dependent on the level of your injury, so it’s important to consider what you’re going to need in your room to make your stay as stressfree as possible.
Despite being a highly active chair user, Ian always makes sure he has an accessible room and a bathroom with a roll in shower or bath rail. “You’ve just got to be confident in how you make your bookings and tell people what you need” Ian explains, “There are times when you get a hotel that will say our accessible rooms are sea facing and will therefore cost more...just saying that you’ll take a nonsea facing room if they can offer the facilities, generally they let you have the accessible room for the nonsea facing price”.
Confidence when booking also applies to transportation. Ian fondly remembers a time when his wheelchair gained him a luxurious upgrade: “This was perhaps my first trip after my injury to Paris, and at the time toilets were not accessible from economy [class on the plane]...I called them and asked about the facilities, to which they answered that they would bump me and my companion to first class, of which I didn’t argue!”. Being straightforward and confident when booking, telling hotels and transportation providers exactly what you need, is essential to making your trip seamless.
One of the things you may be initially concerned when traveling abroad is, how am I going to cope on an aeroplane? “Generally every big airline firm are really make sure they’re looking after chair users”, Ian explains. When it comes to bladder and bowel management on long flights Ian finds ways of managing that do not involve a catheter, “Sometimes I just use an indwelling catheter that they put in when you’re initially injured, but when I went to the States recently I used catheter and sometimes a sheath and leg bag, so I was just able to use a night bag plugged into the bottom of my daytime leg bag”.
“Generally the planes they’re not there to help you out so when you’re going on long flight... it’s easier to have somebody with you to empty the night bag to go to the toilet with. You just put in a plastic bag under your seat so no one has to see it or know about it”. Finding a way to cope with being on a long flight is very much down to you and the level of your injury, however there are most certainly ways to withstand longer flights when preplanned.
Ian is a very independent chair user, being an active rugby player and completing the London Marathon twice. He did however highlight the importance of having a companion whilst on transportation and on holiday, but that their role should be supportive, not overwhelming. “Carers or partners should just ask what you need, and how they can help rather than just do it”.
The warning signs
As well as these more obvious concerns, Ian also notes a few other points to consider before embarking on your trip. Like many SCI suffers Ian has little control over his body temperature, a concern when being exposed to extreme heat or cold conditions. “I had to be very conscious of myself when I was out in Vegas just because of the heat out there, I purposely didn't book in their really hot times because I knew I would struggle”. On a similar note, Ian notes something else to consider in hot conditions: “You’ve got to be conscious if you’re transferring in and out of taxi’s or in and out of unfamiliar situations of not marking your skin: 45 days of pain could really ruin your holiday”.
Thankfully, Ian has never had a health scare whilst on holiday, but always takes precautions. “For anybody [at] about T6 you can get autonomic dysreflexia, [which is] basically when your body is saying something's wrong, shoots your blood pressure through the roof, gives you a really awful headache, and can be lifethreatening if not sorted out”, Ian warns. “I made sure that I took some of this medication with me just incase I needed it. I didn’t need it, but if I did have a problem I would at least have [had] a temporary fix”.
Anticipate any potential problems by making sure you have all of the equipment, medication, and emergency supplies you might need for your trip. Simply looking into the medical facilities on offer, and investing in good medical insurance will not only ensure your health is put first, but also put your mind at rest for the duration of your trip.
From wielding a machine gun in the US, to perusing picturesque laneways in Paris, Ian has plenty of memorable moments from his travels. “For me one of the most pleasing parts is people’s reaction to me”, Ian says. “In America, when you back wheel balance off a bus or something like that, the look of shock that actually somebody can do that is a wheel chair is a really nice moment...there are plenty of moments that can make you smile”.
As an SCI patient, your chair and your condition need not hold you back from exploring the world. With preparation and precautions in place, there are little bounds to the destinations you can visit. Being clear on what you need whilst on holiday, and asking directly for it from your carer or partner, accommodation, and transport providers is all that is needed to ensure you enjoy your time away. Understandably, making these precautions can be more difficult for some patients than others, so if you’re still unsure on what support you may need feel free to ask one of our Bard nurses or advisors any questions you may have.
For more information on travelling with SCI, just pop over to our Learn section.