As you may have noticed I am attempting to give all of my chapters amusing or, at the very least, intriguing headings. With this chapter there was no need for me to make any effort whatsoever because the Barbara Bus was already called, well, the Barbara Bus. For those of you not in chairs the idea that the average car and person in a wheelchair are not terribly compatible sizewise has probably never crossed your mind. One of the key skills you have to learn as a person in a chair is how to transfer to other places like your bed or a plinth or into a car. The lower the injury and the more upper body function you have and – not to put too fine a point on it – the less you weigh the easier this is. For me, with a cervical injury and limited hand/arm function and absolutely no torso function, transferring anywhere at this early point was something I was not very good at. Whilst I weighed barely six stone, I was still very weak and my muscles terribly wasted. One of the key initiators of a transfer is to get your weight to a tipping point which you then use to lever yourself out. This is usually achieved by first leaning your head and shoulders forward which, in my case, saw me simply topple towards the ground headfirst, the talent that had got me here in the first place. So, crap/dangerous as I was any transportation of me would require a vehicle big enough into which I could simply be wheeled, chair and all. Enter the Barbara Bus.
The BB was the inspired idea of S.U.R.F (Spinal Unit Recreational fund), the hospital’s own charity to provide outings for patients of the spinal wing. Run by current and ex patients and kindly staffed by the nurses and healthcare assistants in their own time, the charity had raised enough money to buy a minibus which had been specially adapted to take a wheelchair and occupant along with a number of their friends and family. It had been named after the Barbara who had helped raise most of the money for it and was in high demand given there were quite a few patients in the wing like me who had not mastered their car transfers. The BB was our only available method of transportation if we wanted to go out of the hospital and experience some of the outside world again so getting hold of it for the day or evening involved having to be pretty quick getting your name down and booking it. I had been in the hospital several weeks before I even found out about the bus and it was several more, involving form filling in, the attending by Himself of a training course and production of driver’s licenses and insurance forms, before he was pronounced safe to drive and I managed to book a space. After three and a half months of being incarcerated I was finally getting out. Where did I choose to go for this momentous trip? Leeds.
The Saturday finally rolled around grey and cold and it was the temperature that first hit me as I was pushed out of the doors. Hospitals are usually super heated and having not been outside in in over a hundred days, I hadn’t experienced anything lower than a steady 30 degrees for some time. The second thing that assaulted my senses was the air – it was moving, the breeze hitting my face and moving my hair about. This isn’t something that happens to you inside a hospital ward either – at least, not unless you’re really unlucky. It felt both incredibly normal and very alien at the same time. Finally, I could smell the outside. Car fumes, wet tarmac, damp earth – and the noise – birdsong, traffic. I felt overwhelmed and terribly vulnerable, trapped in my enormous hospital chair that I could barely push myself along smooth hospital corridors. Outside even that tiny bit of independence was taken away as the ground is neither smooth nor flat in the real world. Pavements are full of cracks and uneven paving stones that trap the small front wheels on a chair, most are on a camber to allow rainwater to run off and even the smallest incline, probably not one you would even notice on foot, becomes a herculean struggle. On the other hand, gentle down slopes see you gathering alarming speed like an out of control juggernaught without brakes or any of those nice run-off pits filled with sand. I clutched my knees – rugged up like those of an old lady – to stop myself being tipped out and allowed Himself to push me to the back doors of my chariot. He opened the back door. I sat there shivering. He then climbed inside and started unfolding ramps and pulling levers and unravelling long lengths of seatbelt webbing ending in metal clips. This continued for about ten minutes. Then my wheelchair was carefully positioned along the assigned wheel ramps and, with unnecessary straining noises, Himself wheeled me up into the back of the bus. Once ensconced my brakes were applied and then I waited another ten minutes as the requisite safety tying down took place. Levers were locked into position, webbing threaded through my wheels etc – suffice it to say that, by the time the process was completed, that wheelchair was not moving, even if we hit a wall at 70mph. There was just one teensy thing that the safety police had overlooked – the fact that I was not attached in any way to my wheelchair. There I was, quite literally on the loose, raised on a platform at the back of the bus with an unimpeded trajectory of approximately 15 feet to the windscreen. My precarious perch was made even more so by the fact that I had no hand grip to hang onto the arms of my chair nor any torso control to stop myself lurching in whichever direction the Barbara Bus turned. Himself, a veteran of no less than four Speed Awareness courses, clambered into the driver’s seat. “Ready?” he shouted cheerfully and not waiting for my answer, he set off.
Having a solid back to my chair, this initial momentum merely threw me backwards into it. Braking to exit the carpark saw me scrabbling to stay in the chair and the initial turn out of it left me hanging off one side. Fifteen feet away, oblivious at the front of the BB, Himself hummed cheerfully as he accelerated away up the road. From my lofty position I had an unimpeded view of what was coming as we bore down on a roundabout. The brakes went on again, I scrabbled, we hung a left into the roundabout and I hung out of my chair to the right. We went round the roundabout fairly swiftly, the momentum of which pushed me back up and then we were off once more. My brain, institutionalised as it had been indoors for three and a half months, struggled to compute this tidal wave of light, noise, open space and, most of all, momentum. I felt much like someone plucked out of the 17th century and placed in a modern motorcar for the first time. “Could we” I gasped, breathlessly “slow down a bit?” It was here I encountered the other drawback of the Barbara Bus. It’s a bus. So Himself could not hear my querulous pleas from the back over the engine noise and vast distance between us as he barrelled along. With my excellent view I watched the motorway slip road loom and we accelerated away up to a brain-frying top speed of 65mph. Never has anyone wanted to get to Leeds more.