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By The Way
Detours with locals. Travel tips you can trust.
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What I learned about flying after surgery

Limited mobility, plus labor shortages, made an international trip challenging. But it is possible.

(Katty Huertas/The Washington Post)

Traveling by air in a pandemic is stressful enough for someone, like me, who flies extensively for work. But throw in recovering from surgery into the mix, and it feels impossible. When I decided to undergo foot surgery for a noncancerous tumor, the doctor in France, where I live, assured me I wouldn’t have to make any lifestyle changes afterward, other than maybe not walking long distances in heels. Maybe it was my doctor’s optimism or my naivete, but I assumed I could keep my international travel plans for the holidays three weeks after the surgery.

It was only a few days before my trip from Paris to Seattle that I started to reconsider flying. I had to either cancel the trip or make extensive plans to help execute travel with a swollen foot. I was relying on crutches and traveling with two, 50-pound checked bags with gifts for family, plus a carry-on and a personal bag. To add to this, Delta Airlines had changed my direct flights from Charles de Gaulle to Seattle-Tacoma, so I had a layover from an international flight on U.S. soil. This meant that to make my connection, I had to go through immigration, customs and security with all my bags in a very short window.

Panicking, I Googled what airport and airline services were available to me. Sadly, there wasn’t a lot of information or insights online. After a call to Delta, a representative kindly told me that it was the airline and airport’s responsibility to get me and my possessions to the aircraft, but she stressed that the services varied by airport.

With limited knowledge in hand, I managed to prepare for and get through 20 hours of travel but not without hitting a few snags along the way. Here’s what I learned on my journey and how you can plan for your own post-surgery trip.

Preflight

Before surgery, discuss with your doctor about how soon you can travel. Ask about what steps you need to take to be cleared for travel, potential complications that could happen in-flight and what to do if they occur. For me, the doctor’s main concerns were in-flight swelling and pain management. The doctor administered a shot the day before my flight, gave me an aspirin prescription to take throughout the trip and recommended medical-grade compression socks to thwart swelling.

I also secured a protective boot for the trip, which ended up being essential because it allowed me to stand on two feet for the first time since surgery. It also offered protection from any abrupt contact made to my foot.

Getting to the airport

I usually take a taxi to the airport when I am traveling with several pieces of luggage, but I didn’t know how I could get from the curb to the ticketing desk on my own. Per the Delta representatives’ direction, I had to get myself and my belongings to the ticketing gate for assistance — a key point others should remember. (Some U.S. airports will offer assistance from curbside departure drop-offs.)

My partner adjusted his work schedule at the last minute to accompany me and lug my bags to check-in. When we got to the airport door, there were security guards checking boarding passes and ticket confirmations, letting in only those who were traveling. We had to explain and direct their gaze to my foot and crutches to allow an exception, and they eventually let my partner escort me inside.

Check-in counter to the gate

Despite the extreme busyness during the holidays, everyone at check-in took the time to walk me through how I would get through security and immigration. My gate was right after security, so I didn’t need to navigate too far or use the tram. With the airport inundated with passengers, the ticketing agents were having difficulty flagging down a wheelchair. It was then that I tried taking my first steps in the boot and decided to send my crutches home with my partner. I stressed to the ticketing agent that I still needed assistance for the layover in Detroit. I’m glad I did, because my foot swelled, even with compression socks.

Because of my SkyPriority status, I was given access to the expedited immigration and security line. If I didn’t, I would have asked for it, which airlines allow on a case-by-case basis.

The first leg

The boarding process was stressful, as the flight was full and there were extra security and passport checks. I missed the call for those who needed extra time to board, which resulted in my standing on the ramp for 10 minutes as they were spacing out the number of people entering the plane. I made a mental note to make sure I board earlier or get wheelchair assistance on the next leg of my trip.

Once I got to my seat, I asked a flight attendant to help me get my carry-on into the overhead space. The flight attendant apologetically responded that they are trying to avoid touching bags because of coronavirus protocols. I explained why I needed assistance, and the flight attendant came back with gloves on to help handle my bag. I overheard the flight attendants confirming wheelchair assistance with passengers, and when they didn’t come to me, I had to signal and ask. They didn’t see it on their list, which goes to show it is important to ask for confirmation after boarding.

With aspirin, a raised foot, compression socks and massaging, I was able to endure the flight without too much discomfort.

The layover

As I had predicted, the layover was the most frustrating. Because of labor shortages, there were not enough airport employees at Detroit Metropolitan to meet demand. Two employees assisted eight passengers from the first flight to baggage claim and, for a few of us, through immigration and customs to the connecting gate. The two employees took turns pushing two of us at a time, so we traveled in increments through the airport to baggage claim.

At baggage claim, those same workers offered porter services to those with excess baggage before helping us retrieve ours. I saw my suitcases loop around six times before the employees came back to me. They moved us through customs one at a time, pushing a wheelchair and luggage cart. I started to worry because my two-hour layover was now down to one hour. Getting to security took time as it was now down to one employee pushing three of us to our gate.

Still unable to stand, I couldn’t walk through the metal detectors at security and had to wait for an available agent to pat me down. I wish I had communicated in advance that I was in pain and to be as gentle as possible when patting down my boot. When it was my turn to be assisted to the gate, I struck up a conversation with the employee pushing me who said there weren’t enough people who wanted to work for less than minimum wage and rely on tips. I knew I didn’t have time to find an ATM before the gates closed, but I asked if I could tip in euros.

The last leg

I made it to my gate just in time, where the boarding was much easier because it was a domestic flight. The flight attendants were empathetic when they saw me half in tears getting to my seat and helped me with my bags, sans gloves. I followed the precautions from my doctor for the last flight and felt as though I could finally relax, as I was so close to arriving home. But when we arrived at Seattle-Tacoma, I realized that because I had boarded so late, I had forgotten to confirm my wheelchair.

There weren’t enough chairs or employees, so I had two options: wait or try to make it on my own. The Seattle airport was also understaffed, and the employees were pushing more than two wheelchairs at once, plus luggage. The flight attendants showed me a map, highlighting that the exit was right outside the gate. Exhausted from the experience, I used my wheeled carry-on to help me walk. My dad and my brother were waiting for me at the baggage belt, so I didn’t have to struggle while retrieving my luggage.

The lessons

Reflecting on my experience, I didn’t think to factor in the labor shortage. And I wish I had known how important it is to confirm wheelchair assistance once seated on each flight and to have money to tip the assistance employees.

If I fly again after a surgery, I will prioritize getting medical clearance (as I did); make sure to communicate more directly with everyone working at the airport, from the flight attendants to the Transportation Security Administration agents; and look at airport layouts to help factor in time and distance. Flying post-surgery is doable, but it takes planning.

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