What Happend After the FA Asked, “Is There a Doctor on Board?”

There are airborn events I’ve heard about that I dream of experiencing, like getting bumped to First Class. Then there are Mile High Clubs that I never wanted to join — not just the original MHC (ew), but the Oxygen Masks Actually Descend Club, for instance, or the Turbulence Caused a Toilet Tsunami Club. (OK I’ve never actually heard of that but turbulence can get really bad.)

Or, the Medical Emergency Landing Club. Never wanted to belong. Joined it this week.

Fortunately, the medical emergency didn’t happen to me or anyone with me. And thank goodness, the passenger didn’t die on board. Still, the words, “Is there a doctor on board?” jolted me out of my doze on a Sunday night flight, and gave me a new appreciation for what the flight attendants are really there for.

We boarded our Southwest flight in Houston at around 7 p.m., the second leg of our return from a Thanksgiving weekend mother/daughter trip, and all was uneventful for the first two-plus hours. Pebbles (14) and I slept a little. But when the flight attendant got on the PA system and uttered that query, we jolted awake.

“I’m almost a doctor,” the woman sitting next to us said. “I’m in my fourth year of medical school.”

The FA said he’d get back to her, and continued asking the passengers if maybe anyone was an EMT or any other type of medical professional. A few people toward the back fo the plane volunteered.

My first fear was: What if it’s one of the pilots who need a doctor? What if it’s both of the pilots? I may have seen too many movies. Or just one movie, too many times.

The next thing I noticed was the same FA, returned to the front of the flight, removing a large box from … somewhere. I think maybe there was a small storage area in the front left bulkhead? Or maybe it was in the galley. Anyway, he removed an oxygen cannister and hustled it toward the back.

Pebbles and I had gotten a rare upgrade to Business Select, so we were almost at the front of the plane. This means we saw nothing of what was going on in the back. I’d like to say we would have respected this poor passenger’s privacy and ignored the whole situation anwyay, but is it even possible to ignore an emergency on a plane? Even though the situation clearly had nothing to do with me, my heart was pounding and I felt scared. No one on the flight was ignoring the situation.

“I’ve responded to medical emergencies before,” our medical student seatmate told us. “Once on a train.” Pebbles and I exchanged glances, knowing that we would talk about “Grey’s Anatomy” later, and how our friend was obviously bummed not to be in on this action.

Next, the same FA returned to the front to talk on the phone for awhile. I assume he had called the airline’s emergency hotline for crew, which I learned about when watching 9/11 coverage. Because flight crews only have wired phones to use, the FA was stuck up there at the front, center stage, while he apparently took instructions from a paramedic or such, and simultaneously kept his eyes on the patient at the back of the flight. He was facing all of us, and he looked nervous, even scared. After years of watching FAs’ faces for traces of anxiety during turbulence, seeing a scared FA frightened me, even though I knew the reason he was scared was for the sick passenger.

I’m embarrassed to say my anxious mind tried to invent scenarios where this situation could hurt me personally. What if the oxygen cannister exploded? What if a terrorist took advantage of the FAs’ distraction and hijacked the flight? What if this whole situation was just a planned distraction for a hijacking?

And the most realistic fear, of course, wasn’t exactly scary but it was dreadful: What if we make an emergency landing and we don’t get home tonight? We had already been scheduled to land after midnight on a Sunday; the thought of finding a hotel in a strange city this late made me feel more tired than I could bear.

Still talking on the phone, the FA began looking through the big box and taking out other items, including a blood pressure cuff and, I think, a pair of headphones? Each time he took something out, he’d fast-walk it to the back of the plane and then return to the phone.

Several times, he had to admonish the rest of us that anyone who was not “involved in this” should take their seats. I have no idea if people were just trying to use the bathroom or if they were standing up to get a better view.

I checked the flight tracker that Southwest offers passengers through WiFi. We were 40 minutes from our destination, Oakland, and coming up on Las Vegas. I wondered aloud if we would land there. A few minutes later, as if the pilot had heard my suggestion, we felt the plane begin to descend.

“I don’t have any cash, but I think if you’re unexpectedly delivered to Vegas, you have to play a slot machine,” I told Pebbles.

One of the FAs who had apparently been in the back of the plane with the sick passenger now came to the front, as well as some guy who must have been one of the passenger medical professionals, and they talked intensely there. They put the doctor or whatever on the phone for a bit, too.

The main FA informed us of what we’d already surmised: emergency landing in Vegas. He warned us all to stay in our seats when we landed.

Then the FAs began the fastest preparation for landing I’d ever seen, one putting away the medical supplies as quickly as he could and the other practically sprinting down the aisle to collect service items. There was a third FA on the flight, who we didn’t see. I assume she stayed in the back near the sick passenger.

Strapped in their jump seats, the two FAs laughed a bit amongst themselves. I’m sure they were feeling the nervous giggles that happen after an emergency. But I also took it as a sign that hopefully the sick passenger wasn’t dead or actively dying.

We saw The Strip in all its neon glory, and before we knew it, we were on the runway, practically right next to The Strip. The FA told us the Las Vegas fire department would be boarding the plane, and sure enough, someone wearing a LVFD cap was soon leading a dazed-looking woman up the aisle, holding her hands but otherwise not needing to support her. A man and a child followed her.

I felt bad for the family, although also of course relieved that the woman was not only alive but able to walk. We couldn’t help wondering what the emergency was — heart attack? seizure? — but we also naturally realized we’d never know and had no right to know anway.

The devil on my shoulder had to ask: Couldn’t this have waited 40 more minutes? After all, how sick could she be if she walked off the plane? But the civilized human being in me was glad that Southwest Airlines actually valued a human being’s safety over keeping its flight schedule. If it was my child having a medical emergency, would I have felt it could wait 40 minutes for the convenience of the other passengers?

Once on the ground, the passenger evacuated, the crew didn’t give us any updates for awhile. It began to dawn on me that they weren’t just dumping us in Vegas for the night; if they were planning to do that, they probably would have let us off by now. Instead, one flight attendant was struggling to get an incident report together. He was having trouble because apparently this was to be written on half pieces of paper cut from a composition book, and his little rounded 2nd grade scissors weren’t doing the job. He got on the PA and asked if the rest of the crew had scissors.

Finally, we were informed that we’d be leaving as soon as the plane’s emergency kit was reset. Some other professionals boarded the plane and helped the FAs go through the kit and the things that had been used. We got to see all the medical pros who had helped, since they all had to come to the front and sign statements. It was weird, sitting on a plane with the door open, people coming in and out of the jetway.

As the pause stretched on, I fretted that the crew might run out of work hours and have to clock out. If that happened, I was sure we weren’t getting to Oakland that night.

But after maybe an hour, we were told to get ready to take off again. The last hour of our flight was mercifully dull, and we made it to Oakland around 1:30 a.m. I ran into one of the medical professionals at the baggage claim, standing alone. I asked if she was the doctor and she told me she was the nurse. I told her I was glad she was on our flight, and we both expressed hope that the passenger would be OK.

And then all the people who’d lived this little emergency together went our separate ways.

Have you ever been on a flight with a medical emergency? According to this article, it happens about 50 times a day in the US, so I guess people who fly a lot for work have probably been through plenty.

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