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Anne Wallingford, WordSmith


Famine, Flood, and Fire—All in One Afternoon,
June 2002

Because I no longer drive, I rely on the great City of Chicago's medtaxi service (commonly called the medvan) to take me around. Now, the idea behind the Regional Transit Authority (RTA) disability transportation system sounds wonderful on paper. In actuality, though...Well, let me tell you about an outing that took place on Monday, June 10th, 2002.

Any planned outing must begin at 6 a.m. the morning before the trip, so this "adventure" began at 6 a.m. on a Sunday morning when I began calling to reserve a medvan for Monday. This time, it only took 45 min. to get past the busy signal and make my reservation.

The second phase of this outing began at midnight Sunday when I had to abstain from food and drink until after my blood tests were completed at the doctor's office the next day. Since my doctor's appointment was scheduled for 12:15 p.m. on Monday, I scheduled the medvan for an 11 a.m. pickup. Although the actual travel time from my home to the medical center only takes 20 min., experience has taught me to allow plenty of lead-time. Good thing I did, too.

Not surprisingly, the pick-up driver could not find the street where I live. Why not surprisingly? A taxi driver has never been able to find my street the first time around. One driver even ended up miles away on the south side of the city and I live on the far north side of Chicago.

The driver finally arrived at 11:35 a.m. Dreamer that I am, I still thought there was plenty of time to make the 12:15 p.m. appointment. Once my assistant (my sister, this time) and I boarded the medvan and were strapped in, the driver informed us that he had to make a second pick-up before taking me to the medical center. The second pick-up was 20 blocks east of my location; in travel time, if traffic moved smoothly, it would take 30 min. to reach the second destination. (Passengers using this RTA service have no say-so over the pickup schedules. It is considered routine for drivers to make multiple stops for passengers who are traveling in roughly the same direction.) So much for being on time.

Pulling out my trusty cell phone, I asked my sister to phone the doc's office and say we were en route but would be late. It was obvious we were calling from the medvan because the dispatcher's "squawk box" was on full volume. The air-conditioner, though, was on low. And it was a hot, muggy day.

After picking up the next passengers, the driver started towards the medical center. But after driving only a few blocks, he reached down for his receipt book—and promptly realized it wasn't on the floor between the front seats. Sis called out that she had seen something flying past the medvan window when we pulled away from the second stop, but she hadn't said anything because she thought it was just debris from the street.

Sure 'nuff, the driver had put his receipt book on top of the medvan and the book blew off when he pulled away from the curb. Back we circled. The receipt book was lying in the middle of the street near the second stop; so, with great aplomb the driver stopped the medvan in the middle of the busy street, got out, picked up the receipt book, and returned to the medvan. One learns to ignore honking cars when driving in the city.

We made it to the medical center by 12:45 p.m., only a half hour late. Not too bad. After all, doctor's often run late with their appointments.

Knowing that the return trip had to be scheduled immediately, my sister went to the front desk, called RTA, and scheduled a return pickup for 1:45 p.m.

The doctor's visit went smoothly and lasted only 20 min., so we headed down to the lobby thinking we had time to spare. To our surprise, the medvan was already in front of the building. In fact, the driver was just about to pull away because we weren't there waiting. Not that it would have mattered if we had been. The RTA had sent a regular taxi, not a wheelchair-accessible medvan. No way could I board for the ride home.

Not sure that the departing driver would phone in for a replacement ride, my assistant phoned RTA directly. She was told that it would be about 90 min. before another medvan would arrive. So we waited. And waited. And waited some more.

At least the lobby was busy that day so we amused ourselves by watching the arrival and departure of other patients. We waved as they were going—after all, we had watched them arriving. Actually, since the lobby's remote access door wasn't working properly sis thoughtfully jumped up innumerable times to hold the door open for handicapped people who were trying to enter or leave the building.

Finally, we called the RTA dispatcher again. "The driver will be there in 30 minutes." We waited. We called again. "The driver will be there in ten minutes." Twenty minutes later we called for the third time. "If the driver isn't there in two to three minutes, call back." We called back. And were promptly put on hold after giving my id number.

By now, my sister was growing impatient—I can't imagine why—and she called back again. This time she spoke to the supervisor. The supervisor insisted it was our fault for the delay because we hadn't taken the first ride. Besides, Skokie "is a big suburb and the driver is having trouble finding the address." [Side note: Skokie is one of the Chicago's oldest and smaller suburbs and we were at a medical center connected to the only hospital in the area.]

It was now 3:30 p.m. The sky was growing darker and darker. Clearly a major storm was about to break loose.

It sure did. We learned later that the wind gusts exceeded 60 mph. Buckets of rain came down. It was the first time I had ever watched rain falling horizontally to the ground; and not just a few drops—the wind was whipping the rain sideways. Lightning! Crashing thunder! Cars in the parking lot being rocked! Pedestrians being blown down! Suddenly, the lobby's revolving door crashed in. Everyone standing near the door was drenched. Fortunately, I had asked to be pulled back away from the plate glass windows (I was in a manual wheelchair and could not move myself). When the door blew in I was far enough back to be safe.

When the rain let up enough to see to the curb, which was some ten feet from the building, we spotted an RTA medvan parked a few feet from the doorway. The medvan's motor was running and the windshield wipers were on, but no one was inside. Sis ran through the rain to look into the medvan, but no one was inside even though the door was unlocked and the air-conditioning was running.

Ten minutes later, while the other lobby patrons discussed the situation with us—by this time we knew most of the people in the lobby—someone spotted a man wearing a driver's uniform. Here was the missing driver! Who knows where he had been?

The driver returned to the medvan, pulled up to the cutaway curb, and put down the ramp. My sister pushed me quickly through the rain and up the ramp. No go. The driver insisted on pulling me out again, turning me around, and pushing me in backwards, all so the safety belts could be properly fastened. By this time, we were all thoroughly drenched.

The driver had no idea where to take us so we gave him directions. But we had only gone a few blocks when I smelled something really foul. I twisted my head to look out the front window and saw smoke pouring out from under the hood.

In no uncertain terms, I told the driver to stop. Although I no longer drive, I had owned a car for many years and knew that the smoke coming out from under the hood was not a good thing. But oh no, the driver couldn't stop! He had to call his dispatcher first.

By this time, the billows of smoke were really bad. We were near a driveway of sorts, so, at my insistence, the driver said he would pull over. I didn't mean for him to go over the curb and cut across the corner of the lawn, but what the heck. He stopped the medvan. But he would not kill the motor or cut the air-conditioner! Instead, he rolled down the front windows. The wind promptly blew clouds of acrid, chemical fumes into the medvan, and we began choking. All during this time the driver kept arguing with the dispatcher that the medvan was smoking, and the dispatcher kept telling the driver to open the hood. When the driver got out of the medvan and headed towards the front of the vehicle, I could easily visualize him opening the hood and being scalded.

I told my sister to unbuckle the safety belts on the wheelchair and try to open the side door. We had to get out of the medvan. That's when we discovered that it is impossible to open the side door on medvans from the inside.

As I eyeballed the narrow gap between the two front seats and wondered if I could possibly drag myself through the gap and drop to the ground, the driver re-entered the vehicle. At least he hadn't opened the hood. Once more the driver started arguing with the dispatcher! At this point, all I could think about was getting out of the vehicle before something did catch on fire or the fumes sickened us. My sister couldn't exit through the front because my wheelchair had her blocked in, and I had absolutely no faith that if something happened the driver would come to let us out the side door.

I've never seen my sister react like she did this time. She began pounding on the taxi's window and screaming at the driver to get us out. Reluctantly, the driver put down his communicator and came around to the side door to let us out. Even as he circled the medvan, I could hear the dispatcher asking "What's wrong with those b*tchy passengers? They're the ones who kept asking for a ride."

When the driver pulled me down the ramp, he pushed my chair towards the building and headed back to his side of the vehicle. There was an incline, and my chair immediately began rolling towards the front of the vehicle—where the fumes were still pouring out. I know I hollered for help.

Sis later told me that she saw what was happening and cleared the ramp in one leap so she could grab my wheelchair before I collided into the front of the vehicle. She then pulled me back as far as she could towards the rear of the medvan, about twenty feet. Next she used the cell phone to call for a private medvan pick-up. The driver of the smoking vehicle kept saying that the RTA would eventually send someone else out if we would wait. Right. Twenty feet from the fumes, in the rain.

Unfortunately, the alternate service would only pick us up from the medical center. I do believe that an adrenaline rush is what enabled my sister to push me the six blocks over broken pavement and rutted roads, in the rain, back to the medical building. We were finally picked up by the alternate service (read “expensive“) and made it home by 5:30 p.m.

For a twenty-minute doctor visit, we had our own version of famine, flood, and fire. But you know something? Even though I kept humming "Charlie on the MTA" all the way home, this was just the kind of ordinary days I always have.

So, have you had any adventures lately?

Copyright © 2002 Anne Wallingford. All Rights Reserved.

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Saturday, January 24, 2004 00:40