On the evening of Monday, Feb. 5, my husband and I were flying home from a weekend getaway in Charlotte, N.C., to Logan airport. I hadn't felt completely well for most of the day, and I tried to nap on my husband's shoulder as I sat in a window seat toward the rear of the plane. Somewhere over New Jersey, I awoke, feeling a strange sensation that I was going to faint. I told my husband about it—then slumped forward and lost consciousness, but started choking and had a seizure.
The first memory I have of the incident was commotion in the cabin and the flight attendant, Michael, holding an oxygen mask to my face. Surprised and confused by this sudden activity, I began asking, "What happened?" as I was pulled out of my seat and rushed to the back of the plane. A flight attendant graciously laid her long winter coat on the floor in the beverage area where they put me on the floor. The flight crew asked if anyone on board could provide emergency care, and within seconds, two medical professionals appeared.
My two good Samaritans turned out to be Charles Berde, MD, PhD, chief in the Division of Pain Management at Children's Hospital Boston, and Tom Billings, RN, a nurse and hospital product specialist with ICU Medical. My luck in having these two on board, as well as everyone else's on the plane, is beyond description. Without medical assessment and treatment by professionals, the flight crew would not have been able to handle the situation and would have been forced to make an emergency landing. At the time of the incident, no one knew whether I might have some form of internal bleeding, such as a ruptured aneurysm.
Berde and Billings went about their medical assessment of me just as professionally as they might have had I been a hospitalized patient in distress—with the exception of the fact that they were "off duty" and kneeling on the floor of a plane. They took a thorough health history and frequently monitored all
of my vitals. USAir had a medical bag on the plane that Berde quickly took and used to insert an IV line into my left hand. Considering the skill this requires on motionless, level ground, it was no small feat during such a turbulent plane flight!
With very little equipment, and even worse working conditions, Berde provided exactly what I needed in those 45 minutes prior to our landing. They administered dextrose and intravenous fluids, which stabilized my condition enough that we were able to stay on course for our scheduled landing in Boston. In addition to their impressive technical skills under pressure, both Berde and Billings provided a very gentle approach and a sense of humor to help make a serious situation less frightening for my husband and me. They used distraction, such as asking us all sorts of personal questions, like what we did and where we lived. They had such a relaxing way about them that they kept us calm. When I asked if I would be able to walk off the plane, Billings said, "You started this, now you have to finish it," with a laugh. I truly believe the care I received thousands of feet above the ground was as good as, if not better, than I could have received on land.
Due to my low blood pressure, the group of us stayed huddled on the floor during landing, which was an experience to say the least. I felt guilty about being the most comfortable of all of us, lying on my side while Berde and others, including my husband, withstood the bumpy landing on their knees. I felt so fortunate to be surrounded by such caring individuals in those moments.
My departure from the plane was so fast I don't remember being able to thank all those involved as I would have liked. Had I been able to stand up, I would have offered a round of hugs to my group of heroes. Instead, the paramedics quickly whisked me off the plane to the waiting stretcher and ambulance that took me to New England Medical Center's emergency room.
As a physical therapist at the Center for Cancer Care at Exeter Hospital, I see the importance of a gentle touch, a smile and compassion on a daily basis through the
eyes of the clinician. My experience as a patient reinforced my belief in compassionate health care and amazed me about the willingness of total strangers to provide
selfless service to others in a time of crisis
at a moment's notice.
These caring individuals are the textbook definition of "compassionate." And if this had to happen, I could not have been more fortunate to have it happen then and there with them by my side. For those of you who are fortunate enough to encounter these incredible people either personally or professionally, you are in the very best of hands. So, to Dr. Berde, Mr. Billings and the USAir crew, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. Your kindness will never be forgotten.