And we’ve landed! After what has been one of the most mind-blowing, jam-packed weeks of my entire life, I’m now slowly coming back down to Earth and getting set for what promises to be an extremely busy and exciting few months. Before launching into the US week itself and all our adventures along the way, I’d first like to take you back a couple of months to when the planning of the out-of-this-world trip began…
From my previous blogs, you may be aware that going away from home for me means a great deal more than packing a few summer outfits into a suitcase – this is still the most important part, of course, but there’s a little more to it in my case (pun intended). Since this entire trip was planned by the amazing Sutton Trust US Programme, it was strange at first to relinquish control of the military-style planning of such an adventure, but I soon realised there would still be plenty for me to organise in the end!
Despite having flown on a number of occasions over the years with various airlines, due to the precision of Virgin Atlantic’s health checks, this presented more of an issue than it ever has before and, to begin, I was required to pass a Fit-to-Fly Test to see whether I would require oxygen while on-board the aircraft. This involved me wearing a tight-fitting mask which lowered the oxygen levels of the air I was breathing in to that found in an aeroplane cabin, and throughout this, a series of blood samples were taken from my ear lobe to test my body’s reaction to this. Thankfully, my results did not drop below the magic number and I was cleared to fly with no additional oxygen necessary. Phew.
But oh no, the fun wasn’t over just yet. Before I continue, I’d just like to clarify that I one hundred percent appreciate all that airlines do to keep passengers such as myself safe and well, and all I intend to do here is paint a picture of the extra stuff that goes on behind the scenes when travelling as a full-time wheelchair user. For those who don’t know, I use a non-invasive ventilator each night to support my breathing and have done this since the age of three. This ventilation in entirely therapeutic, but has been key to me growing into the healthy young person I am today. I never plan to use my machines on-board the aircraft, but when it came to a discussion with Virgin regarding my ventilator, things began to get complicated. The machine itself has something like two hours’ battery life, which would most likely be enough for me for a seven-hour flight, but no, not for Virgin Atlantic. Ignoring the fact that I am probably the best at assessing my own health and bearing in mind that we are now days away from the flight, we were instructed by the airline to source an external ventilator battery. With the help of the hospital and my new respiratory consultant, we were able to do this, but only just. We now have ten hours of battery life for my ventilator.
Feeling rather too proud of ourselves for having pulled this off, we emailed to confirm we were all set for the flight, to which the airline replied: “Unfortunately as the specifications say that the power station you’ve been given plus the internal battery of the ventilator only provides 10 hours’ worth of battery life, we would require you to have 10.5 hours’ worth of battery life”. Are you kidding me?! After a few polite and professional emails back and forth, it was decided that the extra 30 minutes would not be necessary, but it just serves as an example of the extra hurdles that must be jumped in order to get through day-to-day life – completely do-able, but a little extra time and patience is key.
And finally we’re off! Having booked a night near to the terminal at Heathrow in order to limit the already astronomical pressure which builds on the morning of a flight, we were in position on the morning of Sunday 30th, feeling bright and breezy, and ready for take-off. Well, nearly… Mum and I made our way across the concourse with four suitcases and a manual wheelchair to push along (I made that sound way more graceful than it actually was), and proceed to the check-in desk where we spent one whole hour going over everything that we had already discussed prior to our flight – standard procedure.
Since security also takes a little longer due to my extensive medical equipment carried in hand luggage, we arrived in the departure lounge and headed almost straight to the gate with only a brief pause to have a squirt of the latest Eau de Parfum from Yves Saint Laurent in the duty-free. We do this so that we have plenty of time to prepare my chair for travel, as, for a staggering cost of £20,000, my chair is certainly not something that I wish to see damaged in transit. Having time at the gate allows us to stow away the delicate controls within the body of the chair and ensure that anything at risk remains tightly tucked away whilst in the hold. My hope is that there will one day be a more efficient method for transporting such vital pieces of equipment overseas, but until then, cling-film and crossed fingers it is.
After transferring to my manual chair in order to arrive at the plane door, I’m lifted again into an even smaller chair, known by the in-crowd as the aisle chair, which – you guessed it – fits along the plane aisle. Finally, I’m lifted into my seat, which is where I remain with the support of the innards of my manual chair’s seating system for the duration of the flight. Fast-forward seven hours…… Upon arrival at JFK, the operation to board the plane took place in reverse and, after rebuilding both myself and my chair (which made it in one piece!) in the baggage hall, we boarded the coach and headed to Yale University, our residence for the next week.
I could write a novel, never mind a blog post, about just how absolutely amazing our time in the US visiting campuses and experiencing university life was, but in order to stick with the purpose of my blog and to complete this post before I’m 25, I’m going to focus in primarily on how I navigated such a whirlwind of a week as a full-time electric wheelchair user.
With a 04:00 wake-up call on day one and a packed breakfast in hand, I, along with 59 other students interested in US study, prepared to board the coach to Harvard University. Not so fast. To board said coach, I drive onto a high-lift and rise up onto the coach, but in order for this to work, the lift must actually be working. Obstacle number-one: it wasn’t. In life, you can either get extremely angry and stressed out that life never goes your way, or…. you can take a deep breathe, smile and figure out an alternative plan. I always try to select the latter.
In this case, the alternative plan was to wave goodbye to the rest of the students on the coach, then travel by train with Mum to meet back up with them at Harvard. A passing Yale students arranged for the accessible university shuttle to take us to the station, where we picked up our tickets from the most vintage, stereotypical ticket office and boarded the train from New Haven, CT to Boston, MA. This turned out to be one of my personal highlights of the trip, as the track hugged the East Coast and laid on stunning views of all the natural wonders that New England has to offer.
The next job was to hop in a taxi over to Harvard, except accessible taxis in Boston apparently aren’t really a thing without twenty-four hours’ notice. There is no phrase more true than Every cloud has a silver lining, and in this case, that silver lining was the opportunity to experience the Boston T-Line. As a person with a strong dislike of the London Underground, explained in my previous post, I had my reservations about attempting the Boston equivalent, but with no alternative and the help of a very kind staff member escorting us through the tunnels, the T-Line proved to be one of the best decisions and shot straight to the top of my list of things I love about Boston.
Thankfully, for the following day, we were to remain on the Yale campus in New Haven, experiencing admissions masterclasses and life as a ‘Yalie’, so no coach journey was necessary. We dined in the grand dining hall of Hopper College and toured Yale’s main buildings, including the Sterling Memorial Library, and were all in awe of what an American university education has to offer.
Now, this all sounds pretty perfect, and believe me, it was, but there’s always that one small thing that keeps your feet firmly settled on the ground. On this occasion, it was a crack in the wire which controls the core functions of my chair. It was late at night and I had made that fatal mistake of declaring to Mum that it wouldn’t be long before we’d be tucked up in bed, when suddenly – nothing. Try turning the chair off then on again, that usually works. Nope. As a student who excels much more in the humanities than in the STEM fields, chair maintenance is certainly not my strong suit, but desperate times call for desperate measures. Together with my Mum, after around an hour of detective work, we managed to locate the faulty wire and, following a phone call with my Dad across the Atlantic, we found a temporary solution of switching the wires in order to last until he could fix the problem permanently at home. It is inevitable in life that things like this will occur, but as I move towards leading a more independent life, I am slowly finding ways to manage these everyday, minor, yet incredibly major, crises.
Throughout the week, we visited a variety of other universities, ranging from small women’s colleges like Smith College to big-name universities like Columbia in NYC. Despite the East Coast not being the place for me due to the entirely impractical weather for a large portion of the time, it was a great learning experience to figure out what worked for me and what didn’t across a number of different institutions. Things like uneven pavements due to extreme weather cause unnecessary delays and discomfort to someone travelling on four wheels, but this is something that can only be found out by visiting campuses in person.
In addition to the epic university search, the Sutton Trust US Programme laid on a number of cultural activities, including a visit to a typical American mall; lunch in Central Park; a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art; and a trip to the Top of the Rock. Driving through New York City for the first time is a pretty magical experience as it is, but with the added ambiance of Alicia Keys blasting out of the coach speakers, it was almost enough to bring a twinkle of a tear to the eye.
The Rockefeller Center had an almost Disney feel to it, with all staff greeting you with warm smiles and friendly conversation, and this positive attitude definitely came in handy when it came to me needing to use the bathroom. What would be your initial instinct when you decide that it’s that time? Follow the signs to the ladies’, right? And that’s exactly what we did. Except, after navigating our way through the labyrinth that is the Rockefeller Center food court and arriving at said ladies’, we were greeted by a flight of stairs. Oops. Luckily for us, there was a little sign pointing us in the opposite direction to the ‘Handicapped Restroom’, however, we later found out that this was located about three blocks over. Since we were traveling with a large group of students, we were under pretty tight time constraints, so making it there and back in time for our trip to the Top of the Rock was just never going to happen. In the end, we found an extremely kind security guard who escorted me and Mum to a private bathroom beyond the security station. As I’ve said before, it only takes one kind-hearted stranger to transform a day from one of stress to one of nothing but joy.
The views from the Top of the Rock were breath-taking, providing the perfect backdrop for my next artsy Instagram post. But seriously, it was impossible not to feel inspired by the city rolled out before us, and the setting sun set the tone beautifully for such a wonderful evening. I also felt that this was the point during the trip at which our group as a whole truly came together. With the Sutton Trust US Programme and my fellow #YellowBackpacks, I have found a group of young people who share my passions and ambitions, and with this comes a strong sense of companionship and belonging. Throughout the week, we laughed, we learnt, we sang and we cried, and I’m sure I’m not alone in my belief that I now feel all the more ready to take on the exciting challenges that the US admissions process will no doubt bring over the next few months. Thank you Sutton Trusters!