Flying the not so friendly skies


Flying business class is addictive. The first time I was upgraded it felt like I’d won the lottery. The seats are wide and comfortable. My only complaint it that there is too much leg room. I’m on the short side and don’t need all that extra space. In fact, I don’t know what to do with it, but I manage, particularly when all the free alcohol starts flowing. Getting upgraded unfortunately can be very anxiety provoking. So when I had the opportunity to fly business class in order to attend a conference in Mexico City, I jumped.


Fifteen minutes after take off, I sense a commotion going on in coach. My first instinct was to ask the flight attendant to close the curtain that divides first from coach, but he ran by me so quickly, I couldn’t grab him in time. When I look back there is a woman lying down on the floor and others have gathered around her. The woman in the aisle next to me says, “Someone’s having chest pain.”
“How do you know?” I thought. “Do you have a bionic ear or is that headset you’re wearing one of those amplifiers I’ve seen on television?”
Of course, I go to the back of the plane and sure enough there are three people huddled around a hispanic woman who is clutching her chest and moaning. A younger hispanic woman, who I assume is her daughter, is shaking the woman’s shoulder, calling out, “Mamita, mamita?”  There is a man reaching over the seat in front holding the semi-conscious woman’s hand. He identifies himself to me a  doctor. The chubby woman standing next to him states she is a nurse, but not just any nurse. She is an ICU nurse. I assume she felt the need to clarify this so no one would ask her to change a bedpan.  Not to be out done, I tell everyone that I am an internist. Then I assume command and demand to know what happened.
“Just after we took off she fell down and clutched her chest,” says the doctor still holding her hand. I’m wondering if he knows some alternative method of dealing with chest pain that involves pressure points in the hand.
Soon a flight attendant brings over a tackle box with tons of goodies inside. I remember ten years ago when I was on a flight from Puerto Rico, a man was having a seizure. When I asked the flight attendant for supplies then, she handed me an oxygen mask. “What am I suppose to do with this?” I said sarcastically. “I need Valium.”
“Sorry,” she replied. “Anything more would be a liability.”
What a difference ten years make. Now they even have a defibrillator on planes and all kinds medical supplies. It’s like a candy store for doctors.
Immediately I grab the stethescope and listen to her chest. The nurse attempts to put in an IV and blows the vein. I look over at her and she is red faced with embarrassment. I don’t berate her although it does cross my mind. Doctor “Aladdin” is still rubbing the woman’s hand like a lantern, so I reach over from the seat behind him and insert a 20 gauge IV. I let the nurse hang a bag of normal saline. Afterwards she takes the woman’s vitals signs and informs us that the blood pressure is very low. Dr. “Aladdin” continues to rub her hand while simultaneously petting her forehead. I look over at the nurse who rolls her eyes. 
We administer three rounds of nitroglycerin, glucose, and another bag of normal saline. Finally I remember the defibrillator. So I suggest we put the paddles on her chest in order to get a rhythm. When the flight attendant sees me reaching for the machine, he grabs my arm. “Please don’t shock her!” he says with eyes so wide you could see the whites above and below his pupil.  I look at his name tag. It says, Jorge.
I say, “Calm down Jorge and go get me some pretzels.”
Once we place the paddles on her chest, I see the rhythm is normal, but I’m not risking my license. So I grab the pretzels from Jorge and ask him, “Where are we?”
He says, “Some where near Houston.”
“Well go to the cockpit and tell Captain Stubbing we have to land because Celia Cruz over here needs an ER.”
Within a half an hour we land. Although I knew this was going to screw up my plans, it felt very empowering to have the ability to land a plane. One minute, I’m watching some George Clooney movie in buisness class and the next thing you know, Houston we have a problem.
The EMS comes aboard, like they are landing on the moon and carry Mrs.  whatever her name is, off the plane, still clutching her chest. The plane takes off shortly afterwards. Everything is back on track and hopefully the woman was just having some indigestion, the result of a bad peanut.
Jorge comes over to me. I think he’s going to give me some award or citation. Instead he makes me fill out some documents. “Do I get a copy of these?” I ask. He looks as me as though he just smelled an onion. I guess not.
We arrive two hours later then we were scheduled. The car waiting for me charges me an additional eighty dollars.
Five days later, after the conference is over, I call the airline to inquire about the woman I saved. The customer service representative tells me that she cannot release the woman’s name or the details of what transpired after she was taken to the ER. I try to explain that I signed documents and legally, I was the doctor of record. The representative is not impressed and repeats that their policies prohibit them from identifying passengers.
“Even in this situation? Did I tell you I made them land the plane?”
“Sorry,” she says.
 Then I get angry.
“Well, I bought a full priced business class ticket, to do business that I couldn’t do because some woman in coach had chest pain. Will I be compensated for that?” 
“Sir, it’s not our policy to compensate doctors for helping passengers. It is your PREROGATIVE to do so.” 
“But I contained a situation. I alleviated the fears of the other passengers including her daughter. I even put in an IV and did some other doctorly stuff.” 
“Sir, we do not compensate you for helping. That is your PEROGATIVE.” 
“I’d like to speak to your supervisor please.”
“I am a supervisor.”
“Well good for you. I want to make a complaint because if you do not give me this woman’s name then I cannot follow up and there fore your airline is obstructing the completion of my care.”
 “Like I said before I can not do that.” 
Then I decide to get crafty with some doctorly made up logic.
“I’m sure this woman was given a copy of the reports. Those reports have my name on them. If she decides to sue me, can I sue you for obstructing my follow up?”
“Please hold.”
I thought so.
Twenty minutes later, she makes me repeat everything and asks me for my number. Then she says, “Do you have another number in case this one is busy/”
“Don’t worry I’ll answer. By the way, can I have your name?”
“It’s Hannah, and we can’t give out our last names. So don’t ask.”
“Okay Hannah, talk to you in a few.”
As I wait by the phone, I think, “Well played. You really showed her whose boss. I bet they offer you platinum for life.”
Seconds turn into minutes which eventually accumulate into an hour, then two. Finally I give up hope that Hannah will call. Eventually, I begin to doubt whether my argument has any merits at all. “You did a good deed,” I tell myself. “Be proud of that. You didn’t do it so that you could get a free ticket?”
That weekend, my friend Sharon, who has an opinion on just about everything disagrees. “No, no no,” she yells one afternoon from the front seat of her car. I just finished telling my story to her and her husband, Justin. My partner Chad was in the back seat staring out the window in a daze, probably hyponotized by hearing this story one too many times. “No, what that airline is telling you is that it is a de-sentive to help someone. They are sending out a bad message to other health care professionals. What they are saying is, ‘You’re on you’re own people. We just drive the plane. If you want to help that’s your prerogative.'” I like Sharon’s argument and wished I had thought of it when I was speaking to Hannah. “And then she doesn’t even call you back?” Sharon pulls on her hair in a way that reminds me of the comic strip Cathy. “Oh I would have been pissed. Right Justin?” He nodds silently, staring ahead at the road, acting mysteriously like Chad: calm, quiet and suspiciously tolerant.
Two days later, I’m sitting in Chad’s aptartment still questioning why Hannah never bothered to call.  So with Sharon’s voice still ringing in my head, I dial the airline’s customer service number.
After navigating through the endless prompts, I reach a human who identifies herself as Kit. I love her because once I finish explaining what happened she says, Honey for what you did, we should have you on the payroll.”
She tries to find Hannah’s complaint but is unable to locate it. “Well, let me tell you what I am going to do for you doctor. Would you mind holding? I promise not to hang up on you. It seems as though someone didn’t do her job.” 
“Of course,” I say. How could I refuse? I mean she did call me doctor and nothing titilates me more than to hear someone call me that outside the context of my office or a hospital. I’ve often thought that Chad should call me doctor in bed but never asked because I was sure he’d have me committed. 
“I promise it won’t be more than a few minutes.” I sense that Kit does not like Hannah. I imagine they have a long history of competitiveness between them.
As promised, Kit returns mintues later. “Dr. Spinelli,” her voice, clearly apologetic. “I’m afraid we are unable to offer you anything other than a letter of thank you. If it’s any compensation, I will make sure your concerns get voiced to the review committee.”
I don’t argue with Kit because I believe she really wanted to do something for me. I feel inclined to ask her if she was remprimanded but then think against it sensing that “they” are listening in on our conversation. Poor Kit. I hope I didn’t get her into too much trouble.
Then she says, “Doctor, we here at the airline appreciate what you did, and we would like to thank you sincerely.” Suddendly, it felt as though Kit had been replaced by some airline animatronic like the ones in a Disney World ride. In those few minutes when she had me on hold, the airline big wigs must have nabbed the real Kit and replaced her with a robotic Kit, just like in the film, The Stepford Wives.
Once I realize what  happened, I hang up the phone. There was no point in saying thank you or I understand. I was no longer speaking to the real Kit. This robot wouldn’t appreciate my gratitude anway. Clearly she has no feelings. In the end, I write off the entire experience as points toward my sainthood.
Later that evening, I dream that I’m on a flight to Mexico. This time, instead of some hispanic woman having a heart attack, Hannah is lying there on the floor of the plane. Leaning in toward her, I whisper softly in her ear: “Remember me? I’m that doctor you didn’t call back. I think I’ll take you up on your advice and go back to my seat and have a cocktail, maybe two. I mean it is my prerogative.”
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