Vantage Point: Standing tall on a Segway, doc rides into challenge

Peter Poullos on his segway

Peter Poullos overcame severe injuries from a bike accident to walk with difficulty, and he found a Segway helped him get around. But he has faced challenges from people who don't realize he's disabled.

My patient was bleeding profusely from the esophagus, and as a first-year UC-San Francisco gastroenterology fellow, I successfully stopped it. The next morning, on Jan. 5, 2003, I went out for a bike ride - but never made it home.

In a freak accident, I was thrown over my handlebars and paralyzed from the shoulders down. At San Francisco General, the trauma team, my own colleagues, administered life-saving dopamine and rushed me to the ICU. I spent five days there, barely able to breathe, staring at my motionless limbs, powerless to will them to move.

Astoundingly, within days, I began regaining slight leg movements. I was transferred to Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, where I underwent intensive rehab. There I slowly exceeded the expectations of my therapists. My progress kept optimism alive, as my left arm started to move, and then my recalcitrant right.

Our tiny condo filled up with helpful gadgets, including a mouth-stick for typing and a neat chair that doubled as a commode and shower bench. I continued rehabilitating three hours per day, six days per week. I learned to stand, and subsequently to walk. To everyone - except for my wife, Amy, and me - it was miraculous.

Unfortunately, despite continued workouts, the recovery decelerated. My right leg dragged, catching on cracks in the sidewalk and tripping me. After just five minutes, I needed to sit, too weak to continue. This 'walking' was not getting me far, and we reluctantly ordered a motorized wheelchair. Despite the sleek design, the chair remained a powerful symbol of illness and disability. I was ashamed, but had no choice, especially if I was going to return to work.

Unable to examine patients or perform procedures, I could not continue as a gastroenterologist. I had to start over, retraining in a specialty that could accommodate my disability. I chose radiology at the Stanford School of Medicine. With a specially modified van purchased by the California Department of Rehabilitation and a team of volunteers to assist me, I was moving forward.

Amy and I were energetic people, and desperately wanted to be active again. Eventually, we attempted a Tuscan vacation. Without transportation for the motorized wheelchair, we left it behind. The first day the reality of our situation hit us. Cobblestone streets, inclines and lack of access conspired to confine, sadden and frustrate us.

One night at home we happened upon a TV show called 'Accessible Adventures.' It showcased disabled travelers, some of whom globe-trotted on Segways, two-wheeled, electronic personal transportation vehicles. The travelers cruised happily and effortlessly over cobblestones in Italy and dirt roads in Thailand.

I knew little about these curious machines, but was excited at the possibilities.

Amy and I drove to the Pacifica Segway dealership. The salesmen floated around the showroom, balancing steadily on two wheels. With assistance from the salesperson and my wife, I cautiously mounted one. It rocked erratically back and forth, but after a few seconds, both the machine and I settled down. My legs quickly tired, but it was exhilarating - this was the closest to walking I had been in 41/2 years. We bought one on the spot.

The Segway became an extension of me. Physical and psychological benefits were quickly apparent. Spending more time upright, my balance and strength improved. Standing tall on the Segway, nobody could even tell I had a handicap.

However, something insidious was also occurring: unfriendly looks, laughing and mocking. I was repeatedly asked to get off the Segway, even in the hospital. A woman in the cafeteria shouted at me: 'You need to get off that RIGHT NOW! You can't have that in here. I already called security.' A shouting match ensued. I yelled, 'Do you say the same thing to people in wheelchairs? Excuse me, sir, but I'm afraid you might run over my feet. Could you please get up and walk?'

Interrupting, she asked, 'How am I supposed to know that you're disabled? You don't look disabled.'

After cooling down, but still irked, I reflected on the confrontation and grudgingly began to consider putting a handicapped sticker on the front of my Segway. Not wanting to advertise my disability, I procrastinated. However, the harassment only intensified. People yelled at me from their cars: 'Use your legs!' 'Hey, Segway dork - why don't you walk?'

One weekend we went shopping. Within minutes, a mall security guard zeroed in and asked me to leave. I explained my situation, and he radioed his supervisor. Amy and I continued shopping, but apparently had become fugitives. Two security guards followed us, feverishly talking on their radios: 'They are heading north toward Crate & Barrel!' A plainclothes supervisor intercepted us and said: 'Do you have a note from a doctor?'

I then yanked my right hand off the handle and induced a rapid spasm that made him cringe. He radioed back to base, 'I don't think he's faking it.' Then he apologized and said, 'Perhaps I could offer you free parking.'

I could no longer tolerate the constant confrontations, and reluctantly taped a handicapped logo squarely on the front of my Segway. I thought that people would see the logo and understand that I was not just some lazy rich guy. But I was wrong.

Sept. 1, 2007. Cal vs. Tennessee at Memorial Stadium. As I was approaching the gate, something hit me square in the back, and my Segway surged forward. I pulled back hard to brake and the Segway luckily kept its balance. I turned around to see a group of fratty guys walking away, laughing and high-fiving. Incredulous and somewhat frightened, I sped after them, yelling, 'Why did you push me in the back?'

'I wanted to see if it could, like, really balance,' one replied. 'Sorry, dude.'

Fortunately, since then I have experienced fewer insults and attacks. We have adjusted to the looks to a certain extent. People are curious, and the Segway has also become a conversation piece in a way the wheelchair never could.

Sometimes, people come up to me just to say that the Segway is cool or are curious about how it works. I hope that more people, able-bodied and disabled, adopt and accept the Segway as an alternative mobility device. Until then, I have a simple plea: Please don't push me off my Segway.

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