Navigating lab in a wheelchair

As I wrote about previously, I had a string of bad luck and illness this winter that culminated in my passing out in the bathroom and somehow fracturing the 1st-4th metatarsals and the inferior cuneiform of my foot. My injury is called a Lisfranc fracture, named for Napoleon’s surgeon who first described this injury in soldiers who were thrown from horseback with one foot stuck in the stirrups. Fun fact: Jaques Lisfranc was known for his ability to amputate a foot in less than a minute.

Thankfully, amputation is no longer the recommended treatment. But, it’s still a severe injury that requires a prolonged period of non-weight-bearing and rest in order to heal. As the orthopedist in the hospital was explaining this to me, I was wondering how I’d be able to manage in lab, and whether I’d be able to conduct experiments.

For mobility, I had a couple of options. I could continue on crutches. I could use a knee-scooter. Or I could use a wheelchair. I used crutches to hobble around my house and go on a few initial forays into lab, but soon realized they were a poor choice because you can’t carry anything! When you’re doing wet lab work and running experiments, you absolutely need to transport things– sometimes very fragile or toxic things– while moving. The knee scooter presented a similar dilemma because you need your hands to steer it, and to hold onto. So I decided to get a wheelchair, which I bought online (insurance didn’t cover any supportive device). My PI said he’d never had a person in a wheelchair in lab, and we weren’t sure how well it would work.

It was both harder and easier than I expected. I fitted my wheelchair with multiple devices and pouches to increase my ability to carry things. To do tissue culture, I transported my cells from their incubator to the tissue culture hood using a tray on my lab. Still, tissue culture was definitely the most challenging aspect of my work because it was difficult to wheel myself around the cramped tissue culture room without knocking anything over or getting tangled up in tubes from the vacuum flasks, all while keeping my poor cells steady! I could not have continued tissue culture work at all in my previous lab, where the incubators and hoods are crammed in a space so narrow that you have to turn sideways to walk through, so I was glad that in my current lab, at least my wheelchair physically fit into the space. Microscopy, on the other hand, was very easy– I just pulled my wheelchair up to the scope and continued as normal. Most benchwork (PCRs, immunos, etc) was fine, too. The main difference was that the bench, built for a comfortable standing height, was at eye level for me, which was sometimes awkward. I did occasionally have to stand on my one good leg to reach machinery or solutions on shelves, so for someone who was not able to stand at all, this could present more of a challenge. I was also not able to get to a number of talks I would ordinarily have attended because the lecture halls or buildings were not wheelchair accessible. For the most part, though, lab work was easier to conduct from a wheelchair than I expected. One reason for this is because I currently work in a handicapped-accessible building. There are elevators and bathrooms on every floor, and even the cafeteria was accessible to me. All in all, tissue culture was the most challenging aspect of my labwork on wheels, but I still managed not to kill my cells!

What was harder than expected were the psychological aspects of being in a wheelchair. Although a wheelchair was the most practical solution to my being able to work while keeping weight off my foot, I understand why most people opt for a knee scooter if possible. In a wheelchair, instead of being at eye-level with people, you’re stuck conversing at belt-level, which is awkward. I stood out as ‘the woman in the wheelchair’ which is not, ideally, what I want to be known for at work. I also had to learn to accept help, especially with the heavy doors in my building, which was hard for me. However, after my wheelchair got wedged in a bathroom door after I declined help from someone who offered to keep it open for me, and I became hopelessly stuck until the next person came along to lend a hand, I realized that it was probably best to just accept and say “Thank you!” to all the busy strangers and colleagues who reached out with small gestures of aid every day.

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2 Responses to Navigating lab in a wheelchair

  1. wheresreason says:

    Awesome! Always wondered if bench work can be navigated in a wheelchair. Kudos for making it work. How long till full recovery?


    • Megan says:

      Yes, it was encouraging to realize how do-able benchwork is from a wheelchair as long as handicapped-accessible building infrastructure is in place.

      For a *full* recovery (back to hiking, etc.), it’ll likely take about another 6 months to a year including PT, etc. Lisfranc injuries are nasty! But I’ll be out of the boot by June, and I’m really glad I’ll get to go swimming and to the beach this summer 🙂


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