On May 23, 2013, I had an issue with the driver's seat in my SUV. Normally, it would come out of the car and lower to the ground so that I could transfer from my wheelchair into the car. Something broke and it wouldn't come in and out of the car correctly. It took almost three months for the part to come in and the seat to be fixed. During this time I was unable to drive and had to be chauffeured around.
In a matter of three short months, I lost the necessary strength I needed to drive. I no longer felt safe driving my car. I was worried about someone slamming on their brakes in front of me and not being able to stop in time.
It was time for the next step, a big step, an expensive step, a step I never wanted to have to make. I needed to transition to driving from my wheelchair with electronic hand controls.....in a mini van. (I swore years ago I would never drive a mini van. Funny how you always eat your own words later in life.)
August 15, 2013 my father and I found ourselves at Mobility Works talking about my options. I use the word 'options' very loosely. There were about four models of mini vans to choose from and only one electronic hand control option.
We have learned as my disability has progressed, everything is a process. We needed to know the proper steps to take and a general time line to getting me back on the road again. It had already been three long months and I needed my independence back.
The first step was to have a driving evaluation so we would know the exact equipment I would need. I wasted about six weeks trying to make appointments with two places that wouldn't work for me. I first tried Shepard's Center in Atlanta, Georgia but they couldn't see me because my prescription wasn't written by a doctor practicing in Georgia (new policy). I then tried Vanderbilt in Nashville, Tennessee. Unfortunately, they didn't have the electronic hand controls I was going to require, but were able to point me in the direction of Freedom & Mobility in Marietta, Georgia.
October 7, 2013 Jeremy and I traveled to Marietta for my clinical driving evaluation. I met with Beth Gibson, an occupational therapist. We went through about an hour of background questions, mobility tests, driving knowledge, and reaction tests. To my surprise, immediately after the evaluation, the student van was being set up by Marino Pedroni (driving trainer) for me to drive.
I never imagined I would get to test out the electronic hand controls that day. Even though I was used to driving a large SUV, I was a little nervous about driving the full size Ford van (later nicknamed the Mother Ship by my husband). I drove around the parking lot a couple of times with Marino in the front seat and Beth in the back seat. I was doing so well that I got to drive just up the street to a larger parking lot. After several laps around the second parking lot, they let me get on the roads. That's right, they trusted me enough to go play in Atlanta traffic!! All joking aside, Marino had an instructor brake on his side of the van and could also reach the steering wheel.
I ended up driving for about 30 minutes. There was a mix of emotions running through me all at once. After months of not driving, I was trilled to have that control back. I was nervous because driving with electronic hand controls is an adjustment. I was sad because this was my new normal. For the longest, being behind the wheel of a car was always the one place where I felt like I was apart of the able-bodied population again. But most of all, I was beyond grateful for the technology that exists in todays time for me to still be able to drive. My new normal was going to allow me the freedom I had been missing for months.
Marino told me I would need hours of training. It's hard to say exactly how many hours because everyone learns at a different pace. Marino brought the Mother Ship to Chattanooga on October 14th and 15th for me to continue my training. I drove us all over the place. Routes I would take to school, to work and to friends and families houses. I did so well that Marino thought I could take my test at the DMV. Since I would be driving with electronic hand controls, I would need special endorsements on my driver's license.
I never thought 16 years after I passed my driving test the first time that I would be back to test with adaptive equipment. You just never know where life will take you. After a shaky pre car inspection....let's just say I wasn't sure where the hazard lights were and leave it at that, I passed my road test!!
The next step was picking out a van. Unfortunately, Mobility Works didn't have exactly what I was looking for so we opted to buy a 2014 Toyota Sienna towards the end of October. Mobility Works sent it to Braun in Winamac, Indiana for the conversion. When it returned the first week in December, it had a Braun Xi conversion with an in floor ramp.
Mobility Works was really hoping to have me in my van by Christmas. I was really hoping to be in my van by Christmas. Sadly, things don't always go the way we want them to. EMC (Electric Mobility Controls) had not yet written the installation manuals for the electronic hand controls on 2014 vehicles. So my van had to go directly to EMC for the wiring and installation of the EMC product. The general manager with Mobility Works personally came to my office to tell me my van would have to go to Augusta, Maine (needless to say, he knew I wasn't going to be happy about the news).
I was so frustrated!! I was so close to being able to come and go on my own again. And now there was another delay that would take weeks!! UGH!!! It was completely out of my control. Mobility Works was doing everything possible to speed the process for me. All I could do was hurry up and wait. Have I mentioned that I am NOT a very patient person?
Once the van came back from EMC, it was still not 'ready' for me to drive. There was a fitting process that had to happen with myself, Mobility Works and Freedom & Mobility. EMC was not very helpful about giving us an estimated completion date on the van. Instead, they informed us when it was completely done and ready to ship. Thankfully, I had been in contract with Marino from Freedom & Mobility about wanting my fitting schedule the instant my van was in Chattanooga.
The stars finally aligned and on January 20th my smiling face was at Mobility Works. I honestly thought this day would NEVER come.