51-Year-Old Activist Dies of Complications After United Airlines 'Broke her Custom-Made Wheelchair'

Engracia Figueroa, 51, was handed over a 'broken' replacement wheelchair, which didn't cater to her special needs resulting in fatal complications.

51-year-old Engracia Figueroa, a disabled rights activist died of complications from an infected ulcer, a condition that arose after United Airlines allegedly destroyed her custom-made wheelchair about three months ago. The airline company, however, provided her with a replacement but it did not properly support her body. Figueroa died on Sunday, October 31, two weeks after she was admitted to the ICU for the second time ever since her wheelchair was destroyed on a United Airlines flight.

Figueroa suffered a spinal cord injury and an amputated left leg after she was hit by a Bay Area Rapid Transit train 30 years ago. She had a custom wheelchair built specifically to support her body, which was destroyed in the cargo hold of a United Airlines flight from Washington DC to Los Angeles in August. The company provided her with a replacement that did not cater to her special needs resulting in a pressure sore and acute pain.

Hand in Hand, the organization with which Figueroa was involved, noted that soon after she was forced to use the 'inadequate' replacement wheelchair, she developed muscle spasms, severe edema, and finally an infected ulcer that spread to her bones and tissue, causing her death.

Engracia Figueroa
Engracia Figueroa Screen grab - Facebook

Who was Engracia Figueroa?

Engracia Figueroa worked with the Long Term Care and Support Services for All Coalition and was the president of the board of an independent living center in Los Angeles by the name Communities Actively Living Independent and Free. She was at the Care Can't Wait rally and Communities of Care art installation to represent Hand in Hand and urge Congress to invest in the home health care system. After returning to her hometown in LA in August, Figueroa discovered that her custom-made wheelchair, which was in the cargo hold of United Airlines, was "completely contorted".

"I was heartbroken," Figueroa told ABC 7 at the time. "I was completely disabled and traumatized as well as hurt and exhausted," she added. Figueroa was made to wait for five hours at the airport and was handed a "broken" replacement wheelchair, that didn't cater to her special needs, Hand in Hand noted.

United Airline had agreed to replace Engracia Figueroa's $30,000 custom-made wheelchair

United Airlines had agreed to replace her original, custom-made wheelchair, which was valued at $30,000, and stated at the time that they're 'working to fix the wheelchair as quickly as possible'. In the months that followed, Figueroa "was forced to use a loaner chair that was not properly fitted to her body," Hand in Hand said.

"Her struggle to maintain her balance over that length of time in the faulty device led to the development of a pressure sore. 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." According to Hand in Hand, Figueroa succumbed to complications from that infection.

Petition against United Airlines

The organization is now planning to file a petition against 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." United Airlines, in a statement to the Independent, offered condolences on Figueroa's passing. "We were saddened to hear about Ms. Figueroa's passing, and we offer our condolences to her family and friends," the statement said.