“Is there a doctor or a nurse onboard? Would you be willing to assist with one of our passengers?”
Not what I wanted to hear.
I took a deep breath, deciding if I’d be a nurse today.
We’d been in the air for maybe 30 minutes. I was settled in my comfy bulkhead window seat, sharing the row with a nice family of three – mom, dad, baby girl. While waiting for our flight, I’d noticed this little 3-month old cradled in her mother’s arms as she sat on the floor in the crowded terminal, surrounded by baby totes. Calm baby, loving mother, attentive dad. Still, I hoped they wouldn’t be sitting close to me on the flight.
Well, there you go.
“We’re going to San Francisco for Valentine’s Day,” she told me.
After a week away from home for a wonderful vacation in Florida, I’d said my goodbyes to my brother and sister-in-law and headed home. A precious week, it was the first time in our lives that we were able to spend so much time together not surrounded by all of our children and grandchildren. We had a fabulous time playing tourist, hanging out at the golf club, or just doing nothing at all, in their new home town of retirement.
I was on my second plane of the day after changing planes in Atlanta, headed for San Francisco. Settled in, I was looking forward to a little rest after a sleepless last night in Lakeland. I knew Howie, Heather and Sami were picking me up in the City and we were going out for a late bite to eat. Get my rest now was my mantra of the day.
Of course I offered my help. After a long internal debate that lasted at least three seconds. I pressed the call light as instructed. Evidently there was no doctor on board. Up and out of my seat, I followed the attendant down the tight aisle where I introduced myself as an RN to the assembled crew and passengers.
Another of our throng spoke up, “An RN? Well, she trumps me.”
He chuckled as he headed on back to his own seat.
The attendants report to me that the passenger in question is complaining of numbness and tingling in his feet and hands. I see an anxious looking Indian gentleman, approximately 75 years old, sitting in the middle seat. I move into the vacated aisle seat to establish eye contact and be closer to speak with him. His female companion from the aisle seat now hovers over us in the crowded walkway.
“Hello, my name is Kathleen. What is your name?”
Furrowed forehead, his eyes question me. I reach for his hand, press it to my chest, and repeat my name, asking again for his name, and then pressing my hand with his against his chest, repeating myself. I have some difficulty dealing with his strong Indian accent, and I echo his name as best as I can. He nods his head in agreement. Good, step one. Establish rapport. Reduce his anxiety.
“Do you speak English?”
“I speak little bit English,” he replies.
Still holding onto his warm left hand, I ask him a series of questions, one by one, to help me get a feel for what’s going on with this guy.
“What are you feeling right now? Are you having pain in your chest? Any pain at all? Is your head hurting?”
“My hands, my feet, they are tingly and numb. No, I have no pain. No, I am not cold, I’m not feeling hot. I had this feeling only one time before, this morning on the plane from Orlando.”
Same one I was on.
“Do you travel often? Is this something that has happened before?” I ask.
“Yes, I travel. No, no, just this morning – and now,” he replies, as he repeatedly opens and closes his fingers, grasping them or clapping them together to get a feel for them.
Shaking his head, he indicates that he hasn’t had any water to drink today, or much to eat, either.
I take his pulse. Regular, a bit on the fast side, not out of the ordinary. Normal respirations. The woman with him says repeatedly, ‘my son, my son.’ She looks a heck of a lot older than he does. I wonder if she has her personal pronouns confused. Maybe she’s his daughter. She dotes on him and doesn’t speak or understand English.
I figure he’s somewhat dehydrated, with some sort of circulatory challenge and a bit of anxiety thrown in. I advise the attendants that he ought to have some water, as well as sit somewhere he could elevate his legs. He needs to relax.
The crew reports that there are 12 empty seats. I remember seeing a few vacant seats in my area of the plane. Okay, let’s get some people moved around.
“ Mr. ____, do you think you can walk to another place in the plane so that you can put your feet up and rest?” I ask.
He nods in agreement, “Yes, yes, I can do that. I can walk.”
With two flight attendants in the lead, Mr. ___ follows, firmly gripping each seatback as he slowly makes his way, almost in a standing crawl. Smart guy. I walk behind him, ready to reach out and grab him if he falters. The third crewmember brings up the rear. Other passengers are craning their necks, peeking around, watching and wondering what’s going on.
Up near the front of the plane now, I offer my bulkhead seat to a woman sitting in the window seat behind mine, if she’d like to move, explaining to her that this gentleman needs to lie down. She readily agrees. There’s an empty middle seat and the guy on the aisle has offered to move to another seat as well. Before two minutes have gone by, our gentleman has a full three seats to himself.
As he sits to relax after that brief walk, the crew bring him a plastic glass of water which he quickly empties. They set up an oxygen tank for him. He sits there, his companion at his side, his head leaned back, calmly breathing O2 with an oxygen mask. Soon enough, he dispatches with the O2, and his female companion. He lies down to nap with a pillow and blanket provided by the crew.
His daughter/mother was now sitting behind him, thanks to another volunteer seat-mover. She would get up every now and then to gently rest her hand on his shoulder.
My new place was in the aisle seat across from Mr. ___, ostensibly to keep an eye on him. My new seatmate had earlier upgraded his boarding pass in Atlanta to get the aisle seat I was now seated in.
He’d quickly offered it up to me.
“You have enough on your plate. Why don’t you sit here?”
“Thank you,” I answered, “I know you had other plans for this seat.”
He slid over into the empty center seat and we had a good laugh at our mislaid seating plans.
Soon enough, I was called to the crew’s staging area where I agreed to provide my name, address, phone number. If I’d had my RN license on me, or remembered the number, I could have given that as well. No worries. Sure, I told them, you can call me if need be for follow-up.
Somewhat later, I walked to the back of the plane to the bathroom. There was a professional looking guy loitering there, playing with his phone. He looked up at me.
“Save a life!” he quipped, smiling. I laughed. Well, not quite.
He asked me what hospital I worked. I answered that I’d recently retired from Napa State. Turns out, he’d been a sales rep peddling psych meds at various hospitals and clinics in the area. Small world.
On arrival, a wheelchair was on hand to get our guy through the airport. All was well. After we’d settled him in a row of his own, there were no further complaints.
And the baby? Not a peep.
I like to think that at an altitude thousands of feet above the earth, the positive attitude in this plane full of ‘Californians’, and travelers to California, was at least partially responsible for the calm, helpful and concerned manner in which each person played their part.
We didn’t really save a life, we just showed some compassion for our fellow travelers in need.
Here’s to you, Flight Crew and passengers on Southwest Flight 3745, Atlanta to San Francisco. Good job, well done.