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Walk (or Crutch) a Mile in My Shoes: Experience Enables Empathy

Have you ever clocked 10,000 steps in 100-degree heat - on crutches?

Early this summer, I had surgery on both my calves, and had to spend a few weeks in air casts and stunning compression stockings. It took me several days to navigate the house on crutches, shuffling in 6-inch increments. Calls of nature had to be heeded when they were barely whispers, because it would take 15 minutes to creep to the bathroom. The couch was my home.

10 days after my surgery, my daughter had her first lacrosse tournament of the summer season. I was determined to go, so we purchased “VIP Parking” that guaranteed the “closest spots to the field in a dedicated lot”, we packed up the car with every possible comfort accessory that would fit in our wagon, and we drove to the fields.

Turns out, the VIP Parking WAS the closest dedicated lot to the fields: the BOYS’ fields. Which were on the opposite end of the park from the girls’ fields. But how big can a sports park really be? I walk this stuff all the time.

It turned out to be 9/10 of a mile from the car to the field, and I crutched it.

It took me 45 minutes. I had to stop 5 times to rest.

Along the way, 4 golf carts passed me, each with only one person riding in it. The second cart was driven by the tournament director.

Not one of those carts stopped to ask if they may be able help me. Not one of the people driving those carts even made eye contact with me.

By the time the tournament was over, I’d clocked over 5 miles on crutches, and was bleeding under both arms where the crutches rubbed the skin raw.

Consequently, I researched all the ways in which this sports complex and the tournament organizers did not meet ADA requirements (not surprising, as, now that I’m aware of the them — and painfully aware of the consequences of not meeting them — I have yet to attend a youth sports event that does):

  • Typical porta-potties are not wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair, nor are they equipped with ramps or rails; ADA-compliant porta-potties were not provided at any of the 3 locations nearest the girls’ fields

  • The sole handicap-accessible restroom in the park was located .62 miles from the girls’ fields, which would have taken me ~35 minutes to reach

  • Handicap parking spaces were occupied by more than one car, with access to both the space and the loading ramp blocked

More than the lack of ADA adherence, though, it was the lack of empathy that I noticed, beginning with the empty golf carts passing by without a glance:

  • 5 people, in the span of 2 days, at a tournament hosting 36 teams of 11–18 players each, stopped to ask if there was anything they could do to help me (outside of the porta-potty scenario, described below)

  • 16 people stopped to ask what had happened

  • 9 women asked if I’d “had my veins done”

  • 19 women and girls standing outside the line for the porta-potties offered to hold my crutches as I went in, and opened the door for me so I could steady myself to manage the step going in and coming out

  • 1 person (a man) offered to give up his space in the porta-potty line so I could move up faster

  • 7 times, someone placed a chair directly in front of me on the sidelines; 3 times, those same someones refused to move when I politely indicated that I was unable to see the field or change my seating position

The kicker to the anti-empathy observations came at the end of the first day, when I was perched on my crutches, next to a handicap-zone loading ramp break in the sidewalk, waiting for my husband to get the car that was parked a mile away. A car drove up onto the ramp and the driver honked at me. Twice. Then he rolled down his window and barked at me.

G*^damnit, MOVE. There are no g#*damn spaces. I’m parking here.

I was exhausted, it was 100 degrees outside, I’d bled through my t-shirt under both arms; I didn’t have any fight left in me. I moved. He chirped the tires as he parked on the ramp, and scurried away without another look.

Until that tournament, I’d known about the challenges differently-abled face, but I’d never experienced what it was like to face them, myself. For me, it turns out the little things were the most frustrating obstacles. Tournament organizers don’t think about how long it might take to reach a restroom from the fields if you can only travel 20 feet per minute. Crutches chaff against fabric, especially the seam where your bra strap meets your underarms.

I had no perspective to recognize the little things that would become big problems until I lived them. This episode was just two days of my life. Imagine the major and minor injustices, annoyances, and adjustments someone with a permanent or chronic condition faces —every day. And imagine how those might be amplified if the condition were invisible.

After my surgeon approved me to walk without the air casts, my family suddenly stopped walking slowly for me. It happened overnight. No one held my hand to steady me as I got out of the car. My husband even asked me why I wasn’t using my upstairs home office “anymore.”

Um, it takes me 20 minutes to climb the stairs? And it hurts? And I’m wobbly?

It’s not because my family are bad people. It’s because I look fine to them. There’s no outward appearance of infirmity — even though, inside my calves, it feels like I’m running a marathon when I walk across the house. But they don’t know that. They can only empathize if I voice my difficulties.

Although we have no way of knowing the experiences of people we see and patients we encounter, as we go about our daily lives or work through the day’s panel of appointments, every interaction is an opportunity to practice empathy. Open your ears. Open your eyes. Open a line of communication that provides a meaningful engagement that just might make a difference.

It isn’t always possible to walk a mile in someone’s shoes. But we can listen — for understanding, not response — when they tell us about the experience.

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