An Unexpected Show of Kindness (and Medical Intervention) In Flight

United flight 558 started out all fun and turkey hats. Then the woman in front of the plush turkey fell ill.
United flight 558 started out all fun and turkey hats. Then the woman in front of the plush turkey fell ill.

In these days of The Knee Defender, flying has become a lesson in patience and abandonment of personal space. We’re packed in like veal, leaving little room for courtesy and kindness. It’s a battle of self preservation, as Frank Bruni wrote about in a column in today’s New York Times, called “Just Plane Ugly.”

Last week, though, I was on a flight that reminded me of just how amazing humans can be, even in cramped, in-flight conditions.

The idea of getting sick on an airplane is terrifying. But on a Monday in late November, on United flight 558 from Chicago to Puerto Vallarta, it seemed as though outside of a hospital, it may have been the best place to be.

It happened to a passenger with diabetes. She was an older woman, traveling with two other women. Early on in the flight, she looked a bit off. One of her companions walked with her, holding her hand protectively, as she guided her to the bathroom. A few minutes later, looks of concern fell across the faces of the flight attendants. One of them got on the PA system and asked if there was anyone in the medical profession on the plane.

A woman in the middle seat behind us held her hand up and said she was a doctor. The flight attendants explained to her that a woman with diabetes was sick. She’d been feeling nauseous and her head hurt, they said. She was able to share that much with her companions. But then she became uncommunicative.

The doctor walked up the aisle and sat next to the woman, trying to talk to her, as her head bobbed. Around her, her companions and the flight crew looked on, concerned. Another woman walked from the front of the plane and joined them, helping the doctor out (am guessing she’s a nurse). That kicked off a full-on three-hour ordeal, that drew at least one more doctor, another couple of nurses (or doctors), and a full-on collaboration unit of the surrounding seat mates.

From our seats, about five or six rows behind the woman, you could see the doctors and nurses trying to get her to drink orange juice with sugar in it, but those efforts were quickly followed by vomiting. The flight crew asked everyone on the plane if they had any glucose pills or gels. A couple of people had pills, but since the woman was struggling to keep anything down, that didn’t do much good. The doctors were trying to get a reading of the woman’s blood sugar, but the device they were using wasn’t working, so the crew asked if anyone had a working device. It was actually a bit shocking how many people on the plane did, indeed, have one and volunteered to share it.

As time went by, the group helping the woman grew to about six. A large medical emergency kit emerged. Gloves were passed around. Very, very long needles started waving in the air, handled by gloved hands. Blood was drawn. Gloves were bloodied. An IV bag was filled and suspended from the luggage holders above. Trash bags were provided for the waste.

We started hearing snippets around us about some of the doctors. The woman who had been sitting behind us had just gotten married Saturday and was headed to PV for her honeymoon. Another doctor was an internal medicine specialist. A nurse and doctor pair, it turned out, had a young child on board, and their seat mates were kind enough to care for her while they were caring for the sick woman. Clearly, the diabetic woman was in capable hands, and she was incredibly lucky.

I asked the flight attendant if this happens often, and she said it happens way too frequently. I asked if there were usually doctors on board to handle the situation, and she said no–this was actually rare, and she was grateful for it. She said that the flight crew is trained in first aid skills, and they can get on the phone with doctors on the ground to walk them through emergencies. But what we were seeing was pretty rare.

Well into the flight, the captain came out, looking very concerned, and spoke with the nurses and doctors. Then he got on mic and let everyone know that we were about an hour from PV and since the patient was doing ok, we were going to continue to our final destination, where she’d be met by an ambulance on the ground.

By the time the flight landed, most of the crew had gone back to their seats and their family. A couple of folks remained with her, holding the IV and making sure she was doing ok.¬†Initially, we were told to wait in our seats while paramedics came on board. But there must have been a delay—or the woman seemed stable enough–because they then told us we could clear out and she’d come off after us. Everyone applauded for the team. Then we headed off to customs. The doctor on board who sat down with her earliest ended up being last in line in customs.

It was incredible to see it all coming together. As anyone who’s flown recently in coach knows, it’s not exactly a place where we’ve come to expect a display of kindness and compassion. The Monday before Thanksgiving, I saw that and so much more.

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