A story about how a medical emergency on an airplane feels like from a first-person perspective.
“Is there a doctor aboard? We kindly request your assistance at the front of the aircraft immediately”. As a passenger, we came to dread these very words. They ultimately end up causing long delays or even an emergency landing, and who likes these? But they also make us worry because we could be that patient 30.000 feet in the air as well. What are the chances of survival with only the most basic first-aid medicine at hand?
On my recent flight from Dehli Indira Gandi International Aiport to Abu Dhabi, I lost consciousness and experienced it first hand.
Here is my story:
Despite the “advanced” age of 37 (it really feels that way with every other influencer on Instagram having six-packs and being 23), I consider myself very fit. Fit enough to climb above 10.000 feet of altitude for 2 weeks in Bhutan. Fit enough to get up at 6:00 am every morning (or earlier) to maximize my time exploring the country. Fit enough to spend a 24-hour layover in Dehli exploring the city despite insane smog (caused by the Diwali festivities) and catching an evening flight.
Well, apparently I wasn’t. After two very intense weeks, I was sitting in the business class lounge of Dehli Airport feeling unwell. My stomach was aching and I really attributed it to some local food we had hours early at a restaurant somewhere in New Dehli. Nothing uncommon when you are traveling in India, and certainly nothing that alarmed me overly much.
Diligent and experienced as I am, I only had a bowl of soup, some bread, and flavored water – I ignored the rest of the sumptuous buffet or the free alcohol. By the time I was boarding the plane, I was feeling sort of better and forgot about it.
I ordered a Moroccan mint tea after take-off, figuring it would help to settle my stomach, but made the mistake to drink a Martini afterward. For some reason, I thought what is basically a “herbal liquor” would be okayish.
Then it was time for dinner service. I was re-watching “The Black Swan” by then and actually ordered champagne to go along with it. The champagne already tasted weird and I skipped most of it. By the time dessert was served I was beginning to feel really bad. I couldn’t finish my Häagen Dazs vanilla ice-cream and when it came to the scene when Natalie Portman began pulling out bloody black feathers from her back, I started to feel really sick.
I immediately pressed the service-button. Initially, I wanted to let the flight attendant clear my table so I could see the bathroom really quickly. I still remember resting my head against the backside of the seat in front of me……and then I only dimly heard someone calling my name and fainted.
The next thing I remember is a doctor trying to start a conversation with me, checking my vital signs. My legs were weirdly pushed to the top. I felt uncomfortable. Also, my pants seemed to be wet, but that was only a distant thought.
“What is your name?”
“Norman” I answer faintly.
A tanned hand grasps mine and says “My name is Ahmad*. You just lost consciousness. I happen…” the rest resounds like the faint aftertaste of a radio anchorman from next door. (*I changed the name for privacy reasons).
“I am going to measure your pulse, now. Are you feeling okay?”
I start to notice how a stewardess pushes a breathing mask towards my nose with an oxygen flask attached to it. You know, the ones they always show you during the security briefing at the start of each flight.
The doctor then calls out my blood pressure to the attended. “Very low. Get me some orange juice….We need to stabilize him”
He then restarts the conversation with me: “Norman, do you remember what happened?”
I sluggishly respond but then tell him that I NEED to see the toilet.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea right now. Can you drink some orange juice for me?”
Reluctantly I nod. Being aware of the greater wisdom a doctor will have in such matters I try to suppress the strong urge down below.
After two glasses of orange juice, he measures my pulse and blood pressure again and tells me “It’s getting better”.
I am still not allowed to see the toilet, but slowly the details seem to emerge. I also start to notice my surroundings again. My parents and partner are conversing agitated a few steps away, while one flight attended writes something down on a board, the other intently watching if she could be of help.
Apparently I fainted and lost consciousness for a bit less than half a minute. Maybe 10 seconds. My dad claims it was awfully long, almost a minute, my mum says it was not nearly that long and only a blink of a second, while my partner just remembers screaming for help and shaking.
Luckily the physician who introduced himself as Ahmad was sitting right across the aisle and also happened to be a specialist for emergency medicine at the Abu Dhabi hospital. He was at my side within seconds.
After maybe 15 minutes I was finally in a state to see the toilet, which they left open for my own safety. It’s astounding how you really don’t care for your privacy in such moments.
It was then I really noticed that I peed myself.
Ugh! I tried to dry things up a little but was generally too weak to care and returned to my seat where I had some water and more tea. Ahmad put me back in the hands of my family, which were still in shock, but tried their best to be calm and look everything but shocked.
What happened afterward
This was anything but a standard situation for me, so the doctor and the controlling flight attended explained to me the further procedure. They had already compiled a full report of the incident and notified flight control. He added, that he did not hear back from them yet, though.
Someone would be waiting at the gate to take me to the airport hospital at once where they would do a thorough check-up. The physician said he would be accompanying us to make sure I didn’t have to sleep a night at the proper hospital. He also added, tongue in cheek, that he wanted to see the facilities, as they always send them all the cases and he needed to finish their work.
And that is exactly what happened. Luckily we are already very close to Abu Dhabi when I fainted (probably just 30 minutes away from landing). So, as we emerged the aircraft, I was greeted by a guy in a yellow security vest who took me on a fast track to the hospital. Not an ambulance, as I was in a very stable condition and could actually walk myself, at least that’s what I presume. They still put me in a wheelchair and I was able to experience that as well (when you travel a lot, you get to see a lot of people being pushed through the airport like that, so you cannot help but wonder)
The hospital was at the other end of the airport and it took probably 10 minutes to get there. I also DID have to go through immigration though we did not wait in line and were taken through a super fast-track.
The airport hospital turned out to be a normal doctor’s office with a couple of cots. A nurse greeted us right away and asked me to lie down. The physician went to the backroom (which I didn’t get to see) where he delivered his first-hand report to his colleague.
In my case, they conducted a quick blood test to make sure it was not diabetes and scanned my heart rate (ECG) and pulse. When everything turned out normal (to all our relief), the physician did a quick interview and that was basically it.
It took maybe 5 minutes. The longest part was actually filling out the paperwork, which probably took like 20 minutes (but don’t nail me on it, lol). Among others, I had to sign a form that it was my will to travel on. Which I did and then I was released.
After my release
I said my goodbye and sincerest thank to Ahmad. Accompanying me all the way to the hospital was far from what you could expect and I am beyond grateful for his considerate and respectful service. We then entered the business class lounge which happened to be right next to the airport hospital.
Ahmad had recommended drinking some sugary juice and maybe eat some bread, but not more. He thought dehydration and stress was the most likely cause for my fainting. He also said it was probably nothing to worry about, but I should probably see a doctor at home for a follow-up.
You see, I am very prone to fainting. Whenever I get a vaccination or take blood samples, I have to lie flat or I faint. Seeing blood can also be tricky. Intellectually I am not scared by these situations at all, but my body reacts despite it. Alcohol can also cause it, which is why I never drink more than 2 glasses at any given time (which also saved me quite a lot of money over the years, lol). And this was probably just one more case.
Inside the fabulous Etihad business class lounge, the first thing I noticed was the Six Senses Spa. I have been to a couple of their resorts already, and their spas are usually quite divine. The best part, taking a shower was for free and they had a vacant cabin right away, so this is what I did.
It was probably the best shower I had in my life. Not only because the cabin was extremely well-appointed, but I was finally able to wash away the slowly drying, faintly sweetly smelling mess I had created down there. Remember I peed myself and stayed in the state for almost 2 hours!
I was able to wash my undergarment and dried it with the blow-dryer as best as I could. I emerged from the Six Senses Spa feeling like a proper human being again. Still slightly faint, still a bit shaky on my legs, but definitely me again.
When it was time to go to our connecting flight (3 hours later), I was even able to walk all the way (and not rely on a wheelchair).
At the gate, I was first refused to enter the aircraft. But after a quick discussion and showing my documents I was able to board. The attended did, however, say that he had to follow up on this case, do a couple of calls and only then was I able to fly.
He also mentioned that my suitcase was probably taken out of the aircraft, which had me quite worried.
Roughly 20 minutes later and a couple of glasses of water later (while everyone else was sipping fancy welcome drinks), I finally received clearance and they even hinted that my suitcase would fly with me.
I slept most of the flight and only ordered a very light breakfast (some muesli, a bagel, and some orange juice). I was so relieved I arrived in one piece without further complication. Despite signing that I wanted to travel on and not stay at a hospital for further surveillance, I WAS worried a bit.
Maybe my decision to take the connecting flight was a bit stupid, but I just couldn’t bear the thought of keeping my family grounded with me (or traveling on without me) and staying at a foreign hospital – with unknown implications.
A horrible expensive taxi finally took me home, where I almost slept 24 hours in my own, cozy, warm bed thinking “this has been a hell of a day”. My next vsit to the toilet would reveal that I brought a little souvenir from India after all.
The rest of it
The first thing I want to add to my story is that I specifically asked my parents to take some pictures of the incident AFTER I felt comparably well and the doctor said I am stable – realizing that this experience could be of interest to a lot of other travelers but also as a memory for myself. I want to explicitly discourage taking pictures of any medical emergency. If you can, help, otherwise, clear the way for those who can.
Only recently there was a girl who had a motor-scooter accident and the accompanying photographer documented it. Even with your explicit consent, this is wrong and I would like you to know it.
Secondly, there has been a lot of hate toward immigrants lately – especially here in Germany. But from what I gather there have been quite some ugly voices in the US as well. The physician who didn’t leave my side the whole incident shared a part of his journey with me. He was born in India, then went to the UK and now helps people in Abu Dhabi.
Personally, I was thankful that another human being was there to help me. But I would also like to use this as a reminder that each and every one of us might be in a situation where they need the help of a person with a different heritage, different beliefs or a different culture. That’s why they all deserve our respect and tolerance because only in giving you deserve to receive.
Naturally, I would also like to thank the two charming flight attendants from the bottom of my heart. They made sure the whole incident passed by as smoothly as possible and I could tell they were well-schooled in the emergency protocol. After hearing some recent bad news from Ryan-Air, I was well relieved that Etihad still values the safety of its passengers above everything else.
Last, but not least, I am well aware that I traveled in business class and my experience probably ended up being much more pleasant than it might have been. I tried to keep this story as neutral as possible, and hope I was able to give you some insights into an aspect of traveling not frequently featured.
Also, the whole story and the accompanying picture are quite personal. For me, writing and opening to the world has always been a liberating experience. Despite being an introvert, I never felt weird about sharing stories online. This might be different for other people, but it was ultimately the reason why I felt I should write about it. To liberate me, so I can board a plane again without fear.