A colleague, my senior in Internal Medicine and a mentor, was on board a boeing plane enroute to the US a few months ago and shared with me his flight experience that significantly diminished his fear of flying. Yes, this mighty doctor feared the plane like it was some unknown disease he could not identify and manage. It’s actually the fear of putting your life in somebody else’s hands, just like what most of his patients probably feel when they lay sedated on his table praying for his good judgement call and decisiveness. He is a well respected pulmonologist, one of the best I should say. A veteran military doctor, who have seen the worst of what people can do to each other.
It all started as an ordinary flight. The usual airport and immigration procedures. He carried just one luggage and he had it deposited early on. He had with him a duffel bag that was pretty much empty, he said, aside from the anti anxiety meds he had refilled the day before, to help him tackle the arduous task of staying sane amidst a 16 hours air travel he clearly and absolutely feared. He would have chosen ground transportation, if it was possible, even if it takes him days to reach his destination. He simply needed to be on that convention. His reputation and his future with the prominent cardiopulmonary team he belonged to, depended on his ability to bring home breakthrough medical knowledge and expertise they can use to help gravely ill patients. He can’t see any way out of flying, and he will never admit to his peers ( well, except with me) how terrified he is to leave the solid, stable earth.
20 minutes before his scheduled boarding, he already took half a dose of Diazepam. He is flying alone so he is careful not to be too aggressive with his own sedation. He wanted to be calm, but not too calm as to be unresponsive to possible dangers he might encounter while on flight. He is a paranoid flier. He tries to spot anyone acting suspiciously. He tries to hear everything and anything that seem out of the ordinary. An over thinker on its grandest state 😁. The decision to be just partially sedated in flight gave another passenger a second chance to life.
3 hours in flight, he closed the medical journal he was trying to read, albeit unsuccessfully, to focus on what the PA system was saying. They were asking if there is a doctor on board. “ At least they are not asking if there is anyone on board who can fly a plane”, was his first thought, and then it dawned on him, there is a medical emergency 39 thousand feet above the ground and a doctor is needed. He is a doctor ( a very terrified one at that moment). His seatbelt is still securely fastened in spite of the other passengers walking to and from their seats to the lavatory or stretching their feet. The lavatory, another place he is terrified of using on the plane because he feared that one of the buttons ( used to flush the toilet obviously) will eject him to kingdom come. He reluctantly unbuckled his seatbelt and stood unsteadily to approach the nearest cabin crew. He was in business class. The passenger who is in trouble was in the economy cabin. “ Hi. I’m a doctor. What’s going on?”, he asked.
“ Oh Hi Doctor. We think it’s a heart attack, but we can’t be sure”, the cabin crew said.
“ Tell me it’s not the pilot”, the doctor said.<
“ No. It’s one of the passenger. Please follow me”, and he was led away from the cockpit, to his utter relief 😁.
Upon seeing the old man, he immediately shifted gear, from a terrified passenger to a seasoned and and well trained doctor. He asked the crew to place the patient on the floor of the plane were he made a fast assessment and began CPR.. He was amazed that the plane was sufficiently stocked with emergency drugs and equipments ( more so than the airport, ours particularly). The only thing missing is a doctor who knows how to use all those things.
He intubated the patient with the help of a nurse, who is also on board the flight, with the very efficient cabin crew by their side. He and his unlikely team managed to stabilize the patient enough to keep him alive until the pilot made an emergency landing to the nearest airport, where a medical team is waiting.
Back to the plane, he slipped into a calm slumber, without needing the half dose of diazepam to help him get through his remaining flight time. He finally realized that life is just like his particular flight. A very self reliant person who is used to calling the shots hated depending on someone else’s’ expertise and decisiveness for his life. But most of our life is actually like being in flight, be it being the captain or the passenger. Most of how our stories go will depend on our symmetrical turn with the movement of the wind. Go against the wind too much and you disrupt the entire highway of air; Go too fast and you break your fin; Go too slow and you stall; Know too much and you bypass the directions of ground control; Know too little and the plane ends up flying itself. It draws a fine line that makes a difference between life and death.
There is also the factor of circumstances. Where everything and anything you do become inconsequential when life and fate itself dictates the outcome of one’s story. Regardless of the final status of our “flights” in life, be it an unremarkable landing, a braced impact, or a collision, what matters really is the flight itself. The courage to show up when final boarding call announces your name, amidst fear and uncertainties, is what makes every flight story worth sharing.