Home > RNJ > 2008 > March/April > Perspectives: A Day at the Airport

Perspectives: A Day at the Airport
Anna M. Taormina, RN

June 20, 2007

Shepherd [Shepherd Center, Atlanta, GA] is awesome! Why? What other rehabilitation hospital provides its patients with the opportunity to participate in the experience of visiting an airport—from going through security to boarding a plane? Recently, I had the chance to go on one of Shepherd Center’s famous airport outings. I was impressed with the tremendous team effort exerted to make this trip such a successful experience for our patients.

Five patients, one driver, three therapeutic recreationists, and one nurse (me) all met in front of Shepherd at 9 am to board a big bus. After everyone was buckled in, we were off to the airport; family members followed us in their own cars.

Four of the five patients had been injured in motor vehicle accidents, so there was a lot of anxiety about traveling on Atlanta’s busy streets and crowded highways. However, the employees from the therapeutic recreation (TR) department and I were able to get the patients talking and laughing very quickly. And Curtis, our driver, was an expert at navigating the busy streets.

In no time we were at the entrance to the airport. Before our field trip, the TR department had gathered our names, IDs, and other information necessary for boarding a plane and easily getting through security. The Delta Airlines representative met us at security and handed us special boarding passes. The purpose of our trip was to show these frightened and newly injured people that they can lead normal lives and travel as they please. During our outing to the airport, we discovered that one patient was from England, one had visited Morocco, and another had been out of the country on several mission trips with his church. One thing the patients shared was a desire to be able to travel by plane.

The Delta representative guided our tour through the airport, and we were treated like any other passengers getting ready to take a trip. We were all impressed with Delta’s special services for people with disabilities. Delta will assist passengers as much or as little as is requested. Our guide’s knowledge of spinal cord injury was also quite impressive. I later discovered that the Delta guide had been educated by Shepherd Center regarding the needs of people with spinal cord injuries. Our guide knew about the chairs, cushions, and procedures for self-care that are necessary for patients with spinal cord injury.

Everyone made it safe and sound through security. One patient worried about his hardware setting off alarms, another worried that her leg bag might be conspicuous, and we all worried about having to take off our shoes.

Hartsfield-Jackson Airport has a rail system to transport passengers to the concourse. The doors open and close quickly, so our Delta guide reminded the patients to be assertive when getting on and off the train. The four employees from Shepherd knew that we had to let our travelers make their own way into and out of the train. Although none of the patients required help boarding or exiting the train, we remained close by, just in case.

When we made it to our gate and were ready to board the plane, all five of our patients were first transferred to special boarding chairs and then to airplane seats. We sat for a while and chatted, and Delta even provided snacks! It was a pleasure to observe these people having a fantastic experience that one patient later described as “exhilarating.”

The experience did not end when we got off the airplane. Our travelers had to find bathrooms and perform intermittent catheterizations. Next was lunch, on their own, which involved taking out a wallet, finding a place to eat, ordering and receiving food, getting change, and finding a table. The patients loved being out in the world and were excited to make their own choices. One patient, a teenager, was thrilled to see a McDonald’s because he had not been able to get to one since his accident. I sat watching this young man (with C6 quadriplegia) pick up and eat french fries for the first time in months. His smile was priceless.

As all good journeys must, this one came to an end. When we arrived back at Shepherd Center all of us were worn out, but we were excited at what we had accomplished.

Is nursing an integral part of rehabilitation? Yes. Is nursing involved in all aspects of our patients’ recovery? You better believe it. Shepherd is awesome. Why? Because Shepherd Center and its TR department got together with Delta Airlines, patients, families, and nurses to make a real-life experience happen. We showed people with catastrophic injuries that they can live a good life. They can fly.

About the Author

Anna M. Taormina, RN, has been a nurse educator for 5 years for the Spinal Cord Injury Program at the Shepherd Center, Atlanta. Address correspondence to her at anna_taormina@shepherd.org.