Travels with My Reservoir … Or Gasping Across State Lines

Image For more than two decades, my family has made an annual pilgrimage to Sanibel, Florids. It’s our own slice of island paradise for one week a year — sun, sand, shelling and the luscious smell of sea air.  In the past, we also flew to Sanibel to maximize our short time there. But, since my diagnosis with PF, our travels have grown increasingly complex.

We were still able to fly for our first visit post biopsy. I rented a portable oxygen concentrator (POC) that worked for both the flight down and my activity while on vacation. At the time, I didn’t require oxygen while at rest, so the relatively low flow rate of a POC was just fine.

Six months later, we made a second visit to Sanibel. This time I was on oxygen 24/7, but my requirements were still fairly low — 3 LPM (continuous) at rest, 6 LPM (continuous) with activity.  Since portables offer only pulse settings at 6 LPM (and only a couple of models go that high), I knew a POC would not work for the entire trip.  We had to come up with a different alternative, and it was immediately clear that we had to drive.

While my husband and kids psyched themselves up for a 21-hour drive, I worked on piecing together my vacation Os plan. Usually, your home provider works with a provider at your destination to coordinate services.  My home supplier, however, is a local company with no ties to national suppliers. They said they were unable to arrange any support — I’d have to carry everything with me.  So, I rented a POC that we plugged into the car and provided me with a continuous 3 LPM for the drive.  We also brought my full-size 10L oxygen concentrator plus a home fill unit and 4 bottles of varying sizes.  I filled the bottles before we left, and used those for meal and potty stops along the way.  Once we arrived, the full-size concentrator met my needs at the condo, and kept my bottles full for jaunts around the island. All in all, it worked beautifully.

This year however, my oxygen needs were much greater — 6 LPM at rest and 8-15 LPM with activity. The same plan wouldn’t work. I still use my 10L concentrator at home, but I’ve graduated to liquid O2 for my portable needs because I get much more time out of a liquid portable (about 3 hours). Liquid isn’t perfect, though.  It boils off over time, so a portable bottle that was full the night before will be only half-full in the morning. So, filling a bunch of liquid portables for the trip down wouldn’t work.  Taking my full-size 41L liquid reservoir wasn’t an option either — it stands about 4 feet tall and weighs in close to 200 pounds when filled. There was no way we were going to heft that breathy beast into the minivan, and then drag it up a flight of steps to the condo in Sanibel.

Not my van, but this is what it looked like.

Liquid reservoir, concentrator, E tanks for reserve

Still, liquid was the only way to go to meet my breathing needs for the ride down. I borrowed a  21 L reservoir from my home supplier. It’s about the size and shape — and looks amazingly like — R2D2, and holds enough to last me almost 48 hours (1 liter of liquid O2 converts to 814 liters of gas).  Now, I just had to find someone near Sanibel to refill the reservoir during our week’s stay.

After a few calls to oxygen suppliers in the area, I began to understand why my home supplier had given up the year before. No one wanted to supply oxygen to someone who wasn’t their patient, especially someone from out of state. Many said they didn’t offer liquid O2. Finally I tracked down one supplier that grudgingly agreed to refill my reservoir, if and only if I gave them 24 hours notice, arrived at their location between 8 and 8:30 in the morning (the only time their driver was available), and agreed to pay cash.  A girl’s gotta breath, so I said yes.

When I called to make my final confirmation two days before the trip, the person who answered said they had no idea what I was talking about. Panic started to dance around the edges of my brain. After a bit of begging, she agreed to the previous plan.  But their office would be closed both Monday and Friday, and she couldn’t guarantee that the driver would even be there that week. With some more begging, I got the name of their O2 supplier.  While commercial suppliers can’t service patients directly, maybe they could suggest another retail supplier. I got two names and an unsolicited promise of further help if those didn’t work out. Finally, a glimmer of that famous southern hospitality! The first company I called was Rotech, and Todd said he could fix me up no problem. They even drove out to island to pick-up and deliver my refilled reservoir, and let me borrow one of their reservoirs for our stay. (Rotech didn’t show up on my initial internet searches for local suppliers — work on your SEO guys!)  The trip was a success, and breathed easy the entire time.

Traveling is getting more complicated and requires a lot more planning, but it is still possible. With a little tenacity (and a bit of human kindness), I know I’ll be able to continue traveling as long as I have the strength to go.  I look at my oxygen as I do eye glasses, a pacemaker or a wheelchair — it’s a tool that helps me live my life to the fullest.  It’s my choice, not my circumstance, that dictates whether I use the tools available.  And I choose to enjoy what I have with whatever support makes that possible.

TRAVEL TIPS:  Start early to make plans for traveling with oxygen — at least 4 – 6 weeks out:

  • Airlines do not allow oxygen in liquid or gas form. You can, however, use a portable oxygen concentrator — contact your airline to get specifications and necessary paperwork.
  • If you use a national oxygen supplier, they should be able to coordinate your oxygen needs at your destination, and run the costs through your insurance. Keep a copy of your oxygen prescription with you at all times.
  • Make sure to plan for more than your estimated travel needs (airlines require 150%) so you will be covered if you get stranded or waylaid.
  • Call to confirm before you leave.
  • Plan early, then enjoy yourself!