The Italy vacation wasn't all cathedrals and olive groves. On the trip over, I encountered my first in-flight medical emergency.
We're two hours into a nine-hour Vancouver-Frankfurt flight. To celebrate embarking on this trip I'm wearing my new hacking jacket, a grey wool blazer with leather patches on the elbows. The back of the Airbus is extremely warm, though, and I'm sweltering. I feel a little self-conscious about removing the coat and sitting in a public space in a camisole, but Pete assures me it's not a problem.
I've just folded up my coat when a man four rows up stands and begins shouting in alarm and pointing at the fellow across the aisle, who's slumped over, unconscious. I rush to attend to him, only briefly considering and reluctantly rejecting the idea of taking the time to put my jacket back on. So there I am, kneeling beside this man, in skinny jeans, cowboy boots and a black camisole, announcing I'm a doctor. I don't think I cut a convincing figure.
Meanwhile, they've made an overhead announcement calling for doctors on board, and an internist arrives from first class. She looks every bit a doctor: professionally dressed, mature yet attractive haircut, and self-assured. "It's awfully hot in here," she announces. "It's a lot cooler up front where I am."
As we tend to the patient together, who's short of breath and looks unwell, she tells me, "I know for a fact that there's a cardiologist on board. He's in first class with me, and I saw him going over his presentation slides." There's a reason that airline reservations offer a tick-box for Dr, and there's a reason physicians don't select it.
Suddenly the patient's chest starts to heave. He looks around desperately and then tilts his head back and turns toward the aisle. Too late I recognize what's about to transpire. A fountain of vomit hits me, splattering me from my hair to my boots. His own face is covered in it. The flight crew rush up with towels, horrified for me, but I can't clean myself up before the patient is assessed and stable. I wave them away and call for barf bags as he retches again. Three helpful neighbours thrust one at me.
The internist and I move him to the galley. We go through the on-board medical equipment and find a stethoscope and blood pressure cuff. Soon he's feeling much better, his vitals are stable and we've dressed him in a grey button-down worker shirt donated by Lufthansa.
The flight crew watch all of this with interest. One of them remarks, "Did you see that guy back there who jumped up to get a t-shirt form his own carry-on to give to this man?" Everyone murmurs at how remarkable that is. It pleases me no end to reply, "That was my husband." This is well-received. "He's not medical," I say, "but he does what he can."
They kindly offer me the same airline shirt they gave the patient, sealed in plastic, and I squeeze into the tiny washroom to wash up and change. It's next to impossible to rinse my hair. I do what I can to make the shirt work: unbutton a few top buttons, roll up the sleeves, half tuck it into my jeans. They don't have regulation pants, so I'm left to dab my jeans off with a damp paper towel.
The internist and I make a plan for monitoring the patient, the flight attendant takes my contact information and assures me I'll be hearing from them, and I return to my seat. My beloved jacket is where I left it, folded and clean, and I realize how narrowly it missed an assault that no amount of dry-cleaning could undo.
Some kind of chemical absorbent has been spread over the surfaces which had contact with vomit: his seat, a little up and down the aisle, and a substantial pile exactly where I'd been positioned. The flight is fully booked, so when the patient returns to his seat a few hours later, he has no choice but to sit in the same now-soggy seat he started in.
It takes me a while to wind down from doctor mode. I'm on high alert, ready for the next event. It takes hours for the indignity of the experience to sink in. It isn't until I notice a substance on my watch strap, missed in the wash-up, that I feel some revulsion.
When we disembark at Frankfurt, I see the man at the gate, chatting with the internist, fully recovered. It's good to see him well.
Waiting for our next flight, looking around at the airport bustling with people, it strikes me what unusual beings humans are. When one of us goes down, even a stranger to the group, without fail another sounds the alarm, and others rush to help. I like that.
Photo by Sebastian Fuss. Used under Creative Commons license.