Su Lum: Slumming
December 2, 2009
Almost 11 years ago, when I was felled by Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS) and was not expected to live to tell about it, the supplemental oxygen options were dreary to say the least. Since then, thanks to the demands of aging baby boomers, lightweight delivery systems are flooding the market, the exaggerated perils of oxygen are being demystified and, most recently, the airlines have lifted their ban on personal oxygen concentrators.For work, I carry a portable liquid oxygen Helios tank, filled from one of my Mother Tanks at home. This lasts for eight hours, weighs less than 3 pounds and fits into a custom backpack designed by Holly Lockwood, an oxygen patient in Grand Junction (www.lifeback.com). For travel, I have a Sequal Eclipse concentrator, which operates on electricity or battery, making oxygen (don’t ask me how) out of thin air. There is a new device out, or about to come out, which can make liquid oxygen in your own home, obviating the need for oxygen providers in the not very distant future.I had owned my Sequal for several years, using it mainly for short road trips (it works off the car battery), but my recent Caribbean cruise was the first time I used it for plane travel, and I was nervous.My friend Hilary Burgess and I would be flying on three different airlines (Frontier, United and Continental) with substantial layovers in several places, so I was concerned about outlets in airports for recharging and, especially, how long the batteries would last.I had three batteries for the Sequal, marked them 1-2-3 with a black Sharpie pen and began a week-long testing period. According to the instruction sheets, I could set it for either continuous or pulse flow, the latter being the “puffer” setting, delivering oxygen only on the inhale with an audible Puff sound.The constant flow was rejected immediately since it lasted only about two hours, while the pulse lasted for five! I learned that all batteries are not created equal – 1 & 2 were great but 3 was feeble – and figured out what set off alarm bells (you don’t want to be setting off alarm bells on a plane) and what didn’t. You can rent travel-approved concentrators but, if you do, pick them up a few days in advance to get to know your machine.I found that all airlines are different in their requirements. Continental demanded a doctor’s certificate, using their specific form to be filled out (and insisted on seeing it). Frontier wanted a doctor’s prescription, but didn’t ask for it. United, one of the last holdouts against personal oxygen concentrators, figured if you didn’t need it you wouldn’t be dragging it along and asked for nothing.Note: If you are able to walk through the metal detector with your oxygen off, be sure to tell them or you’ll be subject to a pat-down. I misunderstood the question and was patted up close and intimate at Sardy Field. The upshot was that all went well with the Sequal. There were outlets in all the airports (and, on one Continental flight, an outlet in the plane’s seat), the battery indicator was accurate and alerted us when to change them so we could avoid switching them out in midflight (a procedure entailing the removal of the wheel housing, a design flaw that has been corrected in newer models).There was a hairy moment when a security guard asked, “How do you open this thing?” I said I didn’t think it was to be opened – imagining delicate parts strewn across the table – and luckily he took my word for it.The Sequal is much smaller than normal concentrators, but it is still hefty, almost 20 pounds, and the three batteries (could have done it with two) and the adapter had Hilary laden down like a pack burro. I had to put the Sequal under the seat in front of me and was worried about setting it down on its back, but it was fine and acted as a handy foot rest.I didn’t need oxygen on the cruise ship (bliss!), but was a bit worried when the Sequal didn’t arrive at our cabin with our baggage because I would definitely need it on the planes back. Next morning we went down to the information place on Deck One. I had a visual aid since we had brought the Sequal instruction papers with us with a photo of it, and after a few moments the lady at the desk produced it – the tag with our room number had fallen off.
Su Lum is a longtime local who is ready to get going again. Her column appears every Wednesday in The Aspen Times. Reach her at email@example.com.