There was a soft knock on our door about an hour after we checked into Hotel Mansart in Paris, where tensions were high the week after the Nov. 13 terror attacks.
A tall woman stood at the door and behind her was Victor Mark, the hotel's electrician/fix-it guy from Bulgaria, who quickly checked the electrical outlets. He unplugged my two oxygen concentrators, which suck oxygen out of the air, a recent replacement for oxygen tanks.
He did the same with the bedside CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure), a black device the size of a man's shoe box, which has a detachable tube connected to head straps and clear rubber pads that cover the nostrils. Lovely. Envision a human elephant. A CPAP treats sleep apnea.
Mark brought in adapters and extension cords and worked rapidly. He beamed. Success!
Seems my new paraphernalia had knocked out the power on our floor of the hotel.
I didn't know what any of this equipment was six months ago, much less pulmonary hypertension — high blood pressure in the lungs — my eventual diagnosis after being felled several times at high altitudes. My case is mild and I feel fine, thank goodness, but the equipment was prescribed. "Think of the oxygen as medicine," my doctor said.
Stop traveling? Maybe to the Alps and Rocky Mountains, but otherwise, no way. There's too much of the world to experience.
The November trip to Paris and a cruise from Monte Carlo to Marseilles, France, was my first big adventure post diagnosis.
This is what I traveled with: a 4.8-pound portable oxygen concentrator that I wear like a cross-body purse — it supplies oxygen when I exert myself (yes, on long walks and at Costco; no, at home or in restaurants). In the last five years, the concentrators have shrunk in size and are rechargeable, making them an increasingly popular though expensive alternative to oxygen tanks.
Also, I took an 18-pound continuous-flow oxygen concentrator, which connects to the CPAP when I sleep. Accompanying these were clear tubing, cords and plugs. Also a husband named Keith, who helped haul this stuff and makes me laugh, which is important when this is your new normal.
I didn't need my portable concentrator onboard the ship but was glad to have it in the ruins of Pompeii and wandering around Paris and Rome. And several times, when I was wearing it at museums, we were ushered to the front of queues and shown to elevators not accessible (or even visible) to others.
Here's what I learned:
— Airlines require those traveling with portable oxygen concentrators to fill out a form they must carry with them. Each airline has its own form, which is valid for a year. The Federal Aviation Administration has a list of approved brands (www.lat.ms/1NJmeik). .
— You must take extra batteries because not all planes have electrical outlets at each seat, especially on domestic flights. My Inogen One G3 portable concentrator came with separate four-hour and nine-hour batteries. Inogen and some companies may lend or rent batteries for trips.
— Tell your travel agent you are traveling with concentrators. Crystal Cruises also required a signed letter from my doctor and a form stating I could not take bottled oxygen on the ship.
— Travel with an oximeter, which measures your blood oxygen level and pulse rate when you stick your index finger in it.
— Buy travel insurance that covers pre-existing conditions. Such coverage usually must be bought within a few days of the first payment for a tour or cruise. I buy mine through insuremytrip.com, which sells policies from numerous companies and offers advice over the phone.
— Request a wheelchair when traveling overseas or making tight connections in U.S. airports. When I walked off the plane with my portable concentrator in Paris, a pleasant young man asked if I needed a wheelchair. "No, I don't think so."
He mentioned my name.
Oops. I had forgotten that United had asked if I wanted a wheelchair in Paris. To be honest I was self-conscious, but I sat down, held my purse and the portable concentrator in my lap, gripped my roll-on suitcase between my knees and, with Keith beside us, took my first ride.
My wheelchair chauffeur bypassed long lines, showed our passports to immigration, took us down an elevator to the luggage level and rolled me to the waiting area. Same back in Newark, N.J., where an attendant wheeled me through immigration, customs and to my gate in a different terminal. I tipped $10 to $20.
— Order a car to pick you up at the airport. I used Victor Cabs (www.victorcabsparis.com) in Paris, which cost 75 euros (about $82), plus tip, to have someone wait with a sign and help us cart luggage to a nearby car. This was 20 euros cheaper than a metered taxi would have charged during heavy morning traffic. The trip back to the airport was 65 euros.
— Notify your hotel that you are traveling with oxygen concentrators and/or CPAP. We also knocked out our TV in our ship's cabin. On our post-cruise return to Paris, I asked for an electrician as soon as we checked into another hotel. Some outlets in Europe are to be used only for laptops, razors, cellphones, etc. Request distilled water at your hotel or in your ship's cabin if your CPAP has a humidifier. Otherwise, buy it when you arrive.
— European train stations rarely have porters, although we did hire one through the information kiosk in Marseilles. In Paris, you must handle your luggage, arrange for a driver to help you or hope you'll find a stranger who's trying to earn cash.
— Don't assume accessibility is as widespread overseas as it is in the United States. "You are so fortunate in this country," a Brazilian woman told me as she was being wheeled next to me in Newark.
— Spend the final night of your trip at an airport hotel if you have an early flight.
— The main lesson? Just go. Life goes on. Enjoy it.