If you own an SUV and then get into a sedan, you dimly realize that you don’t have to climb into the car. And if you own a car and have to hoist yourself into an SUV, you understand that it’s a big step up, relatively speaking. But if you’re missing a limb, especially above the knee, these differences become more pronounced. My advice? Choose the middle path.
1. the car
I grew up in the car’s heyday. The term “SUV” hadn’t been coined yet, and vehicles that would today qualify for that label were limited to Jeeps and Broncos.
My mom drove a tiny Fiat when I was a kid, followed by an Opel that wasn’t much bigger. Our bigger “family” cars were station wagons, never attractive vehicles to begin with, but especially offensive when adorned with a maroon paint/external wooden paneling combo. As I moved into my driving years, I split time between a Buick Regal station wagon and my mother’s Honda Accord.
With this McGill Car History, I predictably chose a sedan for my first post-amputation vehicle: a used Nissan Altima (gold). As a new amputee, I didn’t think about things like how high the car was or whether the steering wheel had tilt control. I thought about one thing and one thing only: the $10k paid out under my Death and Dismemberment Policy allowed me to get a three year-old Altima with only 24,000 miles on it while still pocketing a few hundred dollars.
If you watched me circa 1997 getting into a car, it looked like someone falling into a swimming pool. That being said, falling into a swimming pool is easy. So long as the pool has water it’s not a dangerous or uncomfortable experience. Similarly, falling into my Altima didn’t pose any real risks to my health. But exiting the car took the strength and dexterity of a rock climber.
First, I had to swing my left leg (the prosthesis) out of the car so that my upper body and left leg were at a 90-degree angle to the vehicle. Next, I had to slide my butt to the edge of the seat while reaching my right hand outside of the car to grab the top of the door frame. Finally, said right hand and arm then commenced the cantilevering process that expelled me (eventually) from the Altima with a healthy dose of assistance from my right leg. In my early days of exiting cars with a prosthesis I felt like a successful ejection deserved applause or a medal. However, as I became more experienced and realized the amount of effort that went into this process I pined for something easier.
2. the SUV
I eventually left Sedanland for a Lincoln Aviator, a smaller (and now defunct) version of the Navigator. At the same time, my wife chose the Chevy Yukon (XL), an SUV so big that I could have done 10 laps around it and completed a half-marathon.
Getting out was now easy – turn upper body 90 degrees and slide out of vehicle until feet on ground. Oh the joy of easy exit! Gravity’s warm embrace escorted me to the pavement without looking like I was using a stair climber. But I quickly discovered that this benefit paled in comparison to the complexity of hoisting myself into one of these monstrosities.
Clambering into the Aviator (on the driver’s side) required me to first step onto the foot rail with my good leg while simultaneously grabbing hold of the interior handle above the door. As my right side (upper and lower) pulled and pushed me upwards, I then needed to get my prosthetic foot to also make contact with the rail, no mean feat given that it was scarcely wider than a balance beam. Only after successfully completing both these steps could I then lower myself into the seat and rotate my body 90 degrees to the right so that I was now in the truck. This sounds complicated. It was complicated. But compared to getting into the passenger side of the Yukon, this was kids’ play.
As a left above-knee amputee, getting into the passenger side of a huge SUV is like a post-grad physics test question. I rejected the approach that I’m guessing most amputees employ: facing away from the door and going into the truck backwards. Instead, intent on getting into the seat in less than 15 minutes, I selected an approach that, if executed correctly, worked really well. But if any of the steps I’m about to describe didn’t occur with the precision of a finely tuned machine, it’s safe to say that I risked hospitalization and perhaps paralysis.
First, I would reach up with my left hand and grab the interior handle above the door. Next, I would make sure that my prosthetic (left) knee was straight so that it would clear the bottom of the door frame. Then, like a trapeze artist, I would jump off my good leg while simultaneously lifting my entire body upwards with my right arm to vault into the seat. This maneuver’s degree of difficulty sits somewhere around a 9.3 on a scale of 1-10. It looks cool the same way it’s cool when those guys on dirt bikes execute back flips off of huge ramps … until they land on their heads and wind up in the hospital for 8 months.
3. today: whatever you call a Scion XB
I now reside in the four-wheeled purgatory between car and SUV. It’s not as hard to get out of as a sedan. It’s not as hard to get into as an SUV. I don’t look like I’m taking the Nestea plunge when I’m getting into it. I don’t look like one of the Flying Wallendas when I’m climbing out.
It increasingly feels like virtually every lifestyle decision I make involves the “Goldilocks Approach”: (1) too hot/big/high; (2) too cold/small/low; (3) ah, just right. Once again, the middle path triumphs.