Paratransit date

Early spring, 2016. Stephanie's leg had been amputated, and the surgery had gone well but the hospital had mismanaged her recovery — a hellish story for another day.

She'd then been shuffled around between two other hospitals, and finally landed at a nursing home for several months of recuperation and rehabilitation — another hellish story for another day. 

Today's story is not quite so hellish, and Stephanie made it fun.

The nursing home was, shall we say, not America's finest health care facility. Steph remained optimistic, and I remained at her side, basically living at the nursing home with her. And the nursing home did just about all they could do to make Stephanie unhealthy and uncomfortable.

As often as feasible, I took her on dates, to a restaurant or on a picnic or to the movies. She'd shimmy herself via the slideboard from her wheelchair into the car, we'd stash the slideboard and wheelchair in the trunk, and we were off. She cherished those few hours away from the nursing home, and so did I.

Three times a week, she left the nursing home without me, for dialysis. To make this happen, she used Madison Metro's paratransit service — a special bus which provides door-to-door service for disabled folks, and has a ramp for wheelchairs.

The paratransit bus picked up Stephanie at the nursing home on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at six in the morning. The driver would hydraulically lift Stephanie and her chair into the bus, and then chain her chair in place, and drive her to the dialysis clinic. A different driver and bus would bring her back to the nursing home afterwards. Not a fun trip, but it's a workable system.

Door-to-door service is a tremendous help for disabled people. There are only two major rules: First, it's for disabled passengers only (well, obviously), though able-bodied companions (like me!) are allowed. And second, you need to phone and make reservations no later than the day before your paratransit trip. That's because Metro uses software to assign buses and schedule drivers and map out their routes, and it's a complicated process — hundreds of disabled passengers, taking varied and individualized trips every day, and no two days are the same.

After Steph's first few paratransit rides for medical appointments, we decided to have a paratransit date. We made reservations the day before, and rode the special bus to a coffee shop, where we loitered and read books, chatted and sipped kava for a few hours one morning. It was perfect.

Our second paratransit date, we decided, would be a trip to the movies. The film we wanted to see was playing only at one theater, on Madison's west side, and Steph's nursing home was on the east side of town. That's about a 30-minute drive in a car, so we allowed that the trip might take an hour. We made our reservations, asking Metro to pick us up at the nursing home an hour before the movie's discount matinee showing the next day. And of course, we made a second reservation for a paratransit bus to pick us up after the movie, and bring us back to the nursing home.

But we'd made a teensy-weensy mistake.

On Stephanie's first few trips to dialysis and back, and our date at the coffee shop, the paratransit bus had simply gone from Point A to Point B. We were about to learn, though, that those first few rides had just been lucky coincidences. 

Afterward, we decided that the term "Door-to-door" was what had confused us. Door-to-door sounds like a direct trip, right? Well, it's not. Paratransit service is a bus, not a taxi.

The driver arrived at the nursing home, and hydraulically lifted Steph in her wheelchair onto the bus. I took a seat, and we were on our way to the movies, but the bus made an unexpected turn and went many blocks off our expected path, where we stopped, and the driver loaded an old man in a wheelchair onto the bus. Then the bus went ten blocks in a different direction and picked up a blind guy. We rode a few miles toward in the direction we wanted to go, but then detoured to a church, where the blind guy disembarked. Right about that time, our movie was starting, but we were still miles away.

Then came a thirty-block side trip to pick up a woman in a walker, and a winding ride down some narrow residential streets to drop off the old man in a wheelchair, and another twenty blocks to drop off the woman in the walker, but there was no-one home so we waited ten minutes while the driver banged on a door.

And then we were taken to the movie theater. The trip had been door-to-door, as promised, but the show we'd come to see was already half over.

Of course, this was our fault. We hadn't been well-briefed on how the paratransit system works, and we'd misunderstood what "door-to-door" meant. But we had internet access, even at the nursing home. We could've done more research. Our fault

Seems almost comical to me now, but at the time we thought it was Metro's fault that we'd missed our movie.But we really wanted to see the movie, so we looked at the showtimes on the theater's readerboard, and decided to wait around until the next screening. And then we made our second big mistake.

Stephanie found a quiet corner of the theater's lobby, pulled out her cell phone, and called Metro. Since we'd be in the theater watching a movie at our scheduled pick-up time, she cancelled our bus ride home — click, click, click, they cancelled that bus. And then Steph asked for a later bus home, but the woman on the phone at Metro explained that was impossible. You need to make reservations the day before, remember? No last-minute changes are allowed.

Oh, and our paratransit ride home, the bus that was coming to pick us up in an hour or so? Well, Steph had started the phone call by cancelling that ride, and once cancelled their software wouldn't allow the ride to be restored. So that ride wasn't coming.

We're seven miles from the nursing home without a car. We have no ride back, and we can't schedule a ride back. We can't call a cab, because Stephanie is in a wheelchair, and she can't get into a car without her slideboard — which isn't with us.

Oh, man. We're so screwed.

Well, what do you think Stephanie does? This is so very and completely  Steph, in retrospect, that even if I hadn't been there with her, hadn't seen it myself, I'd know what she was about to decide. She'd come a long way to see a movie, so she was going to see the movie.

We bought tickets for the next show, and saw the movie, despite not knowing how in heck we were getting back to the nursing home.

I was so worried and keyed up that I barely noticed anything on the screen. I couldn't remember the title the next day, let alone years later. Couldn't tell you whether it was heavy drama or light comedy or a cartoon.

But Stephanie? She somehow moved her worries into a different mental folder, and enjoyed the show. Totally Steph! We talked about that movie a year or so later, and she remembered it clearly, cited scenes and details, said she thought it was good but not great, and explained why.

After the movie, she took charge of the situation, as was her way. She phoned Metro again, and politely but sternly told them they needed to send a bus and driver to bring us back to the nursing home, since after all this whole mess was their fault. (Again, it wasn't, but we thought so at the time.)

The Metro operator explained again that they couldn't do that, and put Steph on hold, then 'accidentally' hung up on her. She called them right back. At one point Stephanie said, still very politely, "It's not going to look good on Channel 27 news if the paratransit system makes a disabled woman spend the night on a sidewalk." Steph-on-a-mission was always a sight to behold; I'm chuckling just remembering it.

Her phone call lasted fifteen minutes, maybe longer, most of that time on hold, but eventually Stephanie spoke with someone's supervisor, who promised that a driver would be diverted to pick us up at the theater, and return us to the nursing home. However, we were told it would be a long wait. Paratransit trips are mapped out the day before and can't be changed, so they couldn't just send a bus and driver. At the end of a driver's shift, though, instead of parking the bus in the garage, they'd have the driver pick us up and make an extra, overtime trip.

This solved our problem, but it meant that Stephanie and I had four hours to kill before our paratransit driver's scheduled shift came to an end. We hadn't brought books, and we'd already read that week's Isthmus. We considered seeing another movie, but there was nothing else we wanted to see.

Instead I pushed Stephanie on a long, leisurely walk around some nearby streets, mostly strip-malls. We bought corn chips at a convenience store, and nibbled them as we continued our exploration of a rather boring part of Madison.

It was me and Stephanie hanging out, though, and that was always fun. We talked a lot, started laughing as our moods lightened, and that afternoon and evening became an enjoyable experience and a happy memory. That was Stephanie's superpower.

After hours of doing basically nothing but having a blast doing it, we made our way back to the theater. A paratransit driver arrived, with no complaints even though his day was supposed to be over. He politely loaded and latched Stephanie's wheelchair into the bus, and drove us to that ghastly nursing home.

It was well after dark, we were exhausted and roughly six hours later than we'd listed on the check-out sheet when we'd left, but no-one at the nursing home had even noticed that Stephanie wasn't there. A cold dinner was waiting in her room.

* * * * * * * * * *

You know what you're supposed to do, if you're taking paratransit to a movie? Don't try to figure out how long the trip will be, like we did. Nope, let Metro do the calculations. "We're going to a movie, and it starts at 1:15," is what you're supposed to say. They'll plug that time into the algorithm, let the computer do the math and plot the trip, and they'll tell you what time they'll pick you up.

That makes perfect sense, right? It's a good system. We had more paratransit dates that went fine, and Stephanie continued to use paratransit to get to and from her in-clinic dialysis, so I'll insert a hearty THANK YOU. It was our mistake, not theirs, that caused all the hassles that afternoon, but Metro went out of their way to make it right, and even now we sincerely appreciate that.