When Helen Saxon-Jones heard about a scholarship program that sent people with certain health conditions to flight school, she was more than intrigued. "It seemed improbable'but also a dream come true!" says the 34-year-old Brit, who has rheumatoid arthritis (RA).
But first Helen had to beat out hundreds of applicants to win one of the nine coveted spots. "Of course, every applicant needs a unique selling point and mine's pretty spectacular: I have no hip joints!" reveals Helen. "My doctors could replace them only so many times before there wasn't enough bone left to anchor a new set of hips. After my third replacement was unsuccessful, they decided to remove the entire ball portion of my hips. As a result, my thigh bones were shortened, and I'm now 3? inches shorter!" So how does she manage to walk? "Strong scar tissue formed where the joints used to be'and thanks to my petite frame and youth, my leg and abdominal muscles grew stronger to compensate. Now the only evidence of my missing hip joints is a slight limp when I walk.'
In fact, Helen, who now controls her RA with medication, has endured multiple joint replacements (including her knees and ankles), bone fusions and tendon repairs. "The chance to get my pilot's license felt like an incredible opportunity to do something exciting and see the world," she says.
When it was time for the selection weekend (three full days of exams and medical screenings), Helen was most nervous about the aircraft check. "They need to make sure you can get in the plane and reach everything, which isn't a given when you're 4 foot 10 inches like me! Luckily, a booster cushion was all I needed to pass." On the final day, a panel of interviewers questioned Helen about her commitment. "They asked, "What three things keep you awake at night?" I responded, "Well'last night it was rudders, breaks and ailerons [wing controls]!" Their laughter reassured me I had a decent chance.'
Once accepted, Helen and her fellow awardees traveled from the United Kingdom to Indianapolis's Purdue Aviation Center this past August. "My first flight was seven different shades of awful! I felt like I had zero control over the plane and didn't want to fly ever again. I went to bed aching and curled up with a hot water bottle. Thankfully, the second day was much better, and only 10 days later I completed my first solo flight. After five weeks, I qualified for my private pilot's license."
Asked for her favorite flight school memory, Helen chooses her first night flight: "As I entered the pattern, I glanced over the left wing to check my distance. The wing looked utterly serene as it cut through the black sky against a backdrop of twinkling, multicolored lights. I felt a deep sense of privilege to have this bird's-eye view of the world, and realized that it was actually my 24 years of RA that brought me to such a beautiful moment.'
Now back home in Lincolnshire, Helen approaches every part of life with the grit and good humor she showed in flight school. "People get hung up by what they can't do. I can't climb flights of stairs or carry groceries, but that has nothing to do with leading a fulfilling life. I work full-time, drive a car and, heck, I fly planes'enough said!"
Helen's tips for soaring with RA
" Rely on your wingman'or woman! "Life is a little like Top Gun," jokes Helen. "You need a supportive copilot, and for me, it's my husband, Neil. But when I was in flight school, my instructors and fellow students took over that role, always encouraging me and offering a kind word.'
" Find creative adaptations. Over the years, Helen's been able to keep her RA in check with the help of her doctors, the right medication'and a healthy dose of ingenuity. "I have an impressive collection of assistive devices," says Helen, "but I
don't get fixated on gadgets'everyday things are just as useful. I use a hammer to open latches in the cockpit!'
" Have fun with fitness. "I like to play fetch with my dogs, so I use a special ball-thrower that launches it across the field. To keep my heart rate up, I'll throw two balls in quick succession. And most mornings, I do my three-minute workout, marching in place to a Lady Gaga song. On days when I'm too exhausted, I still flap my arms while sitting down!'
" Take a "duvet day!" After a long workweek, Helen doesn't fight the need to rest. "I need a full day of recuperation. I do nothing but nap, eat, nap more and watch trashy TV!"
" Tap the satisfaction of distraction. "Shopping is my No. 1 pick-me-up. If I can't reach something, I'll use a hanger to grab it, or ask a salesperson to help. Whatever it takes to get that cute sweater!'
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