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Being a wheelchair user in the cold and snow sure can make life interesting. Here are a few lessons I've learned from pushing a wheelchair through the last 13 upstate New York winters.
The first time I had the pleasure of getting one of my axles stuck (so I couldn't remove my rear wheels) it was a beautiful, snowy, freezing cold day. The Jeep was thirsty, so I stopped for gas. When I went to get back in, one of my wheels wouldn't come off. So, as expected, I let out a string of curse words that would make a trucker blush as I looked around the car for anything I could use to pry the wheel off.
After breaking several items in my car, I couldn't find anything that would get the job done. Not wanting to spend the night at a gas station with my door open, I somehow managed to get my chair in over top of me with a wheel still on. My chair sat in the passenger seat, but was so bulky with the wheel on that I had to hold it up while driving.
Embarrassingly enough, it turns out that I'm not too quick of a learner. I let this happen a few more times, and each time I was somehow able to get my chair in with wheels on and, suprisingly, with fewer cuss words each time. Having learned the hard way, as soon as I notice my axles not sliding out easily, I spray a little silicone on them and wipe them down with an old rag I keep in the pocket of my car door. These extra few seconds of maintenance have saved me an incredible amount of frustration, time, and embarrassment.
I know I'm not alone here. In my line of work, every winter I get the pleasure of prying six to eight stuck wheels off of customers' wheelchairs. Not wishing this experience on anyone, I always try to teach folks how to prevent this and have even been known to hand out silicone spray and rags to 'frequent flyers'.
CASTER, WHEEL, AND TIRE MAINTENANCE
While we are on the topic of maintenance, the service manager part of me would like to remind you to check your caster wheels for built up hair, especially if you have long hair or live with folks who do. When you get a chance, take a look at your casters. Hair wrapped around your caster axles will wear out your caster bearings prematurely. Add in wintertime slush and salty water, and you are almost guaranteed to have an issue. If you see hair wound around the casters and you can't or don't want to take care of it yourself, call your local Sunrise Medical-authorized dealer and set up a service call. They will keep your chair rolling like it's supposed to.
Now that you're thinking about it, how are your rear tires? Are they starting to wear down so the tread is almost gone? The tread will help you grip a little better when there is some snow or ice on the ground. It's not fun to get home after work and not be able to get up your ramp because of bald tires.
Now that your chair is tuned up and ready to go, are you? If you are going to be out in the cold for an extended period of time, it's important to remember to keep your feet warm. It would be a bit of a drag to lose a toe to frostbite, but I don't like wearing big, heavy boots. They don't fit well on my footplate, they make transfers a pain, and I'm trying to keep pressure off of my heels and ankles.
For Christmas a few years ago, my parents gave me a pair of HotMocs, which are like over-your-shoe slippers with a pocket over the toe to hold hand warmers. I wear them over my usual sneakers and can spend hours in the woods deer hunting and get home with toasty warm toes and no pressure sores on my feet from heavy winter boots.
Anyone who pushes a wheelchair in the cold will tell you that finding the perfect glove is very important. The balance between keeping your hands warm while having the dexterity and grip to hang on to your hand rim is a fine line to skate.
For me, once the weather starts to get cold I use mechanic's gloves, preferably ones with a leather palm. They are lightweight and offer just enough protection to keep the chill from my hand rims from numbing my fingers. The leather palms grip the hand rims quite the same as my hands. I find the leather works best because gloves with rubber slip when they are wet and provide inconsistent grip when going down ramps or hills.
Once winter really hits and it's super cold with a ton of snow to push through, I use an old pair of military surplus shooting mittens. They are the best gloves/mittens ever, no joke!
Over the years I have learned that there really is no right or wrong way to do anything. What really matters is figuring out what works best for you because unless you are ready to move south, winter in upstate New York is too long to stay cooped up in the house.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Corey Barss is an assistive technology professional and service manager for Monroe Wheelchair. He enjoys hunting, fishing, farmsteading, and spending time with his wife and their four beautiful children.