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Disabled activist, 51, dies after complications of infected ulcers after her wheelchair was damaged

A disabilities rights activist has died from complications of an infected ulcer three months after United Airlines allegedly destroyed her custom-made wheelchair and provided her with a replacement that did not properly support her body.

Engracia Figueroa, 51, died on Sunday from complications from an infected ulcer, two weeks after she was admitted to an ICU for the second time since her wheelchair was reportedly destroyed onboard a United Airlines flight.

She had been hit by a Bay Area Rapid Transit train 30 years ago that left her with a spinal cord injury and an amputated left leg, and had a wheelchair built specifically to support her body, which she considered an ‘extension’ of herself.

But the wheelchair was reportedly destroyed in the cargo hold of a flight from Washington DC to her hometown of Los Angeles back in August, and she was forced to use a replacement that did not properly support her, resulting in a pressure sore and acute pain.

Soon, Hand in Hand, a nationwide network advocating for dignified working conditions that Figueroa was involved in, says Figueroa began to experience further pain, muscle spasms, a severe edema and finally an infected ulcer that spread to her bones and tissue and that ultimately led to her death. 

Engracia Figueroa, 51, was hit by a Bay Area Rapid Transit train 30 years ago that left her with a spinal cord injury and an amputated left leg. She had a custom wheelchair built specifically to support her body

The disabilities rights activist's wheelchair was reportedly destroyed in the cargo hold of a flight from DC to her hometown of Los Angeles back in August, and she was forced to use a replacement that did not properly support her, resulting in a pressure sore and acute pain

The disabilities rights activist’s wheelchair was reportedly destroyed in the cargo hold of a flight from DC to her hometown of Los Angeles back in August, and she was forced to use a replacement that did not properly support her, resulting in a pressure sore and acute pain

Figueroa had been active with the Long Term Care and Support Services for All Coalition, and was the president of the Board of Communities Actively Living Independent and Free, an independent living center in Los Angeles.

She was representing Hand in Hand in Washington DC in July at the Care Can’t Wait rally and Communities of Care art installation to urge Congress to invest in the home health care system.

When she returned home to Los Angeles in early August, she discovered that United Airlines had damaged her wheelchair while it was in the cargo hold.    

‘I was heartbroken,’ she told ABC 7 after she discovered her chair ‘completely contorted.’

‘I just thought, all of the independence that I fought and strived for and successfully survived for soon to be 30 years by the minutes, it’s stripped away, and I was completely disabled and traumatized as well as hurt and exhausted.’  

She was forced to wait five hours in the airport, Hand in Hand said, and was provided with a replacement wheelchair that was ‘broken,’ and did not properly support her.

‘Her struggle to maintain her balance over that length of time in the faulty device led to the development of a pressure sore,’ Hand in Hand alleges.

‘When she was finally able to return home,’ it said, ‘she experienced acute pain and was admitted to the hospital shortly after.’

United had agreed to fully replace her wheelchair, which was valued at $30,000, under the Air Carrier Access Act, ABC 7 reported, saying at the time it was ‘working to fix the wheelchair as quickly as possible.’

But in the months that it took to replace the custom wheelchair, Hand in Hand said, ‘Engracia was forced to use a loaner chair that was not properly fitted to Engracia’s body.

‘This further exacerbated her pressure sore and caused muscle spasms, severe edema, and an inability to eat, as well as two additional hospitalizations. 

‘The sore became infected, and the infection eventually reached her hip, requiring emergency surgery to remove the infected bone and tissues.’

Figueroa died of complications from that infection, according to Hand in Hand, saying it ‘should never have happened.’

Figueroa considered her wheelchair an 'extension' of herself

Figueroa considered her wheelchair an ‘extension’ of herself

United had agreed to fully replace her wheelchair, which was valued at $30,000, under the Air Carrier Access Act, ABC 7 reported, saying at the time it was 'working to fix the wheelchair as quickly as possible'

United had agreed to fully replace her wheelchair, which was valued at $30,000, under the Air Carrier Access Act, ABC 7 reported, saying at the time it was ‘working to fix the wheelchair as quickly as possible’

‘While we are reeling from the layers of injustice this tragedy makes visible, we are holding Engracia’s tenacity and resolve as our guidepost.’

The national organization is now petitioning United Airlines to ‘end the damage of wheelchairs and assistive devices on its flights and create an accessible process for people with disabilities to travel safely, with dignity.’

According to figures from the US Department of Transportation, airlines on average mishandle about 10,500 mobility devices annually – or nearly 30 each day.

For Figueroa, in fact, the incident had  been the fourth time her wheelchair had been damaged in-flight.

She blamed the damage on a lack of training on how to break down and load the devices.

‘There is no regard or respect of the extension of the human that’s in the plane,’ Figueroa said. ‘When they see a mobility device, they should respect it as if it is a person, because that’s what it is – an extension of their person. And we’re trusting them with the rest of our body.’  

In a statement to the Independent, a United spokesperson said: ‘We were saddened to hear about Ms. Figueroa’s passing, and we offer our condolences to her family and friends.

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