Columnist Jay Fleitman: To Hannah, wherever you are

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Published: 4/30/2018 7:46:17 PM

I first noticed her sitting in the small district airport of El Calafate in Patagonia, Argentina.

She was thin, with an angular face and high cheekbones, a prominent forehead and chestnut hair that was desultory in its lay. She wore jeans and hiking boots, a small backpack at her feet.

She had the air of someone who was traveling alone. I have traveled by myself, and so the signs are recognizable. She was looking at her phone, but not really paying attention as she often looked up and glanced around the room hoping to find a familiar face.

On the plane headed to another small district airport in Cordoba, she sat in the aisle seat across from mine. Just after the plane took off, the pilot made an announcement in Spanish and the passengers erupted in applause. She leaned toward me and asked with an accent and demeanor which was simply American what the pilot had said, as she did not speak any Spanish. I don’t speak Spanish either, but my wife, who does, translated for us both that the pilot was going to change the airplane’s course to bring us over some volcanoes and glaciers.

Hannah introduced herself to us, and she clearly wanted to keep the conversation going. I love to sleep on airplanes and was looking forward to a good nap, but I understand the loneliness which is part of traveling by oneself, so instead I made sure the signals were there that I was open to talking with her.

Travelers who like to travel like to talk about travel, where they’ve been and what they’ve done there. They identify each other that way. We started talking about what we had been doing in Patagonia, and then she told me that she had been traveling the world for the last six years since leaving her job in finance at the age of 30. Her goal was to hit triple digits in the number of countries she had visited, and at this point she was in the 90s.

She would return home to Texas for the summer and work as a camp counselor to make some money that would partially support her travels. She would then find jobs along the way. Her friends loved to hear about her travels, but no one would go out and travel with her.

I let her know that I was a physician when I wasn’t traveling. Our conversation changed. It rolled out of Hannah that she had muscular dystrophy, a form known as limb-girdle, which primarily affects the major muscle groups around the hips and shoulders before it extends peripherally to the limbs and hands. She started getting symptoms in her 20s, and left a job she enjoyed so she could travel for the time she had ahead in which she would be able.

She was clearly feeling the encroaching disabilities as the years have gone on. She was no longer able to hike, and so was hungry to see the pictures we had taken from our hiking in Patagonia. This was her time in this part of the world as well, and she was not able to see these sights. She could no longer spend much time in museums, as her legs would now give out after an hour.

She told me how embarrassed she was with the looks that she got when she walked into handicapped bathrooms, but she needed the height of the toilets because otherwise she could no longer get herself up. She was also beginning to lose strength in her hands, and was unhappy about the loss of muscle mass she was seeing in her legs. Though she was somewhat casual about revealing that she had fallen twice in the last month, I found this alarming for her, as she must have as well.

We exchanged cell phone numbers and email addresses, as she wanted us to send her some pictures and to scout out an upcoming trip we are taking, and she is planning, for ways that she may be able to travel this area given her limitations.

Hannah is only a little older than our children, and I have to wonder how much her parents worry about her out there traveling by herself, and how heartbroken they must be with their daughter having to face these difficulties. I commend them for giving Hannah support in the remarkable courage it takes for her to travel like this.

I wonder about the problems this lovely woman must have in her personal life. I’m sure she worries about who might take her on as a life partner given her future of progressing disabilities. I hope she has not been hurt by rejection about this. I hope her friends stay true.

We have continued to send out emails to Hannah as a way of keeping her company as she continues to travel. After we parted ways in Argentina, she went up the coast of Brazil and our last contact had her in the Galapagos Islands. She would then head back to Texas.

We asked her to call us if she comes to New England and have invited her to stay with us if she comes to this part of the world. I hope she comes: if to Boston, then we can buy her dinner and pay for taxis to offer her some ease within the etiquette that goes with hospitality to travelers. If she were to visit us at home, then it would be our pleasure to relieve some of her burden by providing for her needs and assisting her journeying while she’s here.

So to Hannah, wherever you are, whether you want it or not, there are two more people who worry about you.

Jay Fleitman, M.D., of Northampton writes a monthly column. He can be reached at opinion@gazettenet.com.


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