Walking and Working with the Extenders

Wheelchair with Al

Wheelchair with Al

The first time I ever heard the term “extenders” applied to human effort and not necessarily to equipment utilized by the handicapped was in the office of a doctor who actually had disabilities.

He redefined the word to mean that you never give up.

Burdened by the ever-increasing impact of COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) on my body, I had requested a wheelchair from Medicare and was told to make an appointment in Los Angeles with one Dr. Thomas Hedge, who would evaluate the request.

Who I met was a man in his mid-60s who was confined to a wheelchair and suffering, I learned later, from a malady called Guillain-Barré Syndrome, a disorder of the nervous system that causes muscle weakness and sometimes paralysis.

An articulate and good-natured man, it was Hedge who first applied the term “extender” as it relates to the 54 million Americans with physical disabilities. It was once primarily employed to categorize the equipment they used to help them make it through life; implements like wheelchairs, crutches, canes and walkers. But I realized that that was probably not Hedge’s meaning as he referred to both of us as “extenders.”

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Because he continued to practice medicine  in the widespread San Fernando Valley, and did it all from a wheelchair, and I continued to write despite having COPD, we were extending the active elements of our lives and not wrapping ourselves in cloaks of self-pity.  I needed the wheelchair not as a permanent platform of transportation but as a means to get somewhere when a temporary inability to breathe was inhibiting my ability to walk.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Hedge and I are not alone. Sixty-four percent of those between ages 21-64 and with disabilities are continuing to work; 31 percent of those disabilities are considered severe.

In many ways, by extending themselves, those who continue at least a semi-active life despite burdens imposed upon them by wounded physiologies set examples for others who once saw themselves as America’s “shut-ins.” People like Hedge and actor Michael J. Fox, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease, prove that there is life beyond personal disaster.

Thanks to Hedge’s efforts, the wheelchair was approved. And thanks to my own grit as one of America’s more visible extenders, I continue to write.

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