Reversing the Numbness

Tuesday, July 29, 2008


As my friend and co-worker Keith and I were flying back from Portland last night, we heard a terrible sound. I immediately knew something was wrong, and I looked up and saw an elderly gentleman a few rows up and on the other side of the plane having what appeared to be an intense seizure. I still remember the exact sound he was making. The airline hostesses reacted quickly, and within moments one of them said over the speakers: "Is there a medical person on board? We have a passenger who is having a stroke." (This on-the-fly diagnosis surprised me, and in retrospect I think she must have meant seizure.)

Soon a doctor from first-class and a couple nurses from coach appeared and went to work. Their presence made me feel a little better. The doctor barked out orders from the start: "Get out of my way" she said to someone who was tending to Joe (that was his name) before she got there. "Get me blood-pressure cuff!" She then started talking to Joe, who was obviously still in a very bad way, and she continued to try to get him to acknowledge her for what seemed like 15 minutes. "Joe? Joe? Can you hear me, Joe? Stay with me, Joe, you're going to be okay!" It didn't seem to me like anything was getting better. Joe wasn't in seizure anymore, but he also wasn't responding. To be honest, I thought he was dying, and I know I wasn't the only one who felt that way. Especially after I heard the doctor say, "He's not going to make it," though we think now she meant he wasn't going to make it all the way to Pittsburgh.

Maybe the worst thing of all was that the only person Joe was traveling with was his young grandson -- he was probably 12 or 13 -- who was seated beside him at the window. He was right there for all of this, trapped in what was probably the scariest experience of his life. I sat in my seat hoping with everything I had. I actually tried to mentally connect with Joe, to talk him into coming back. This was no place to die, and it was certainly no place to watch your grandpa die. Come on back, Joe. You don't want it to happen here.

Then a bit later he started to come around. I could tell he was eking out responses to the doctor's questions. Soon I saw the doctor raise his arms above his head, and he actually held them up for a second. This was the moment when I though he would make it. He started to respond even more, and the doctor's demeanor relaxed, which was another good sign. That's when the decision was made to land in Chicago so Joe could get more help. Keith and I were both surprised that the decision hadn't been made earlier, as this whole scenario seemed to last well over 30 minutes. Maybe my judgment is off there, but if it is, it's not by much.

So the doctor sat in the aisle seat beside Joe and the plane banked hard and descended more rapidly than any large aircraft I've ever been on. It didn't seem reckless, necessarily, but it was pretty intense, especially after the experience everyone had just had. Keith wondered if this is the type of situation a commercial pilot lives for.

We landed and obviously taxied immediately to a gate, and an emergency crew was on board in a flash. That's when the best thing of all happened -- Joe weakly stood and took a step to the waiting wheelchair. If you'd asked me 30 minutes before, I would have guessed he was done for, and here he was getting to the chair on his own. His grandson followed, obviously shaken, and they vanished out the door and I assume to the extended hope of a hospital. A hospital that seemed impossibly far away just minutes before. The airline had some paperwork to process, and relatively soon we were back in the air, on our way to Pittsburgh. We got back to Morgantown around 2 a.m.

So that's all we know about Joe. Keith tried doing a search today to find more information on him, to no avail. I'd like to think he's doing fine now. He's a pretty old guy, and he's not going to live forever, but at least he made it through this one. Attaboy, Joe.


Matthes said...

A man is fighting for his life and "Jake" Burgie is wondering if the pilot is having fun!

Just kidding, that's never happened to me and I've flown a ton. One time someone tried to use the bathroom in first class and got in a shouting match with the stewardess.

SleekPelt said...

Keith meant the excitement of an urgent landing, of course. I wondered the same thing.

And by "someone," don't you mean "I"? ;)

josh williams said...

You know who does not want Joe to pull through. It may not have been his time but for the sake of the grandson, well thats a bit rough.
I lived with a flight attendant for three years, she shared with me all sorts of stories about flights that did not go according to plan. This sounds remarkably like one of her stories.
I was also schooled by her that yes, flight attendants are schooled in water landings, even though water landings have a zero survival rate. She also taught me that when they shut down the lights on landing it is so your eyes can acclimate to a dark environment in the event there you have to evacuate in an emergency.
I was on a flight a few years ago with a buddy of mine who was terrified of flying, he is a big man, 6'3" and we entered a thunder storm, the lights went out (I knew why but did not share this knowledge) my big as Paul Bunyan more than once grabbed my arm during the storm. I am happy he does not blog because he would kick me arse if I shared this story.
Another flight I was on into Calgary, I heard as did my ski buddy a thump, he had at one time a valid license to fly a private aircraft. We landed in a off kilter manner with emergency crews lining the runway.
Later I told my dad about this (former air force pilot) he told me that we were very fortunate that the two engines were mounted on the rear, otherwise we would have had more trouble. Almost one year later I read in the news about an aircraft that had the same problem in Colorado. This made the news, same thing, I was semi aware of the dangers but then again, I drive a car and motorcycle not to mention participate in life, so without the warning label we all know life is dangerous, sometimes it can even end in death.
In short I hope Joe is fine and his grandson learns and is not traumatized by the experience.
Welcome home, now I go bed. JW

Zee said...

Damn,that is a heavy experience. Oddly, minutes before I read this blog, I read this and had a lengthy discussion with my intern about stories with people dying on planes during long flights, and what they do with the bodies. According to her (and I have not had a chance to look into this, not do I really have the time), she heard a story of an oversea flight where they had to prop up a body in an empty seat in first class. Sounds like an urban legend to me, but there you have it.

I hope Joe is OK.

Vesper de Vil said...

wow, what an experience. i once witnessed a woman having an epileptic seizure. my mom and i were at a drug store in North Dakota, and the woman next to us just fell over and started shaking violently. she hit her head on the way down. i think her name was Penny. i was only about 9 or 10, and it had a huge impact on me. for the two or so weeks following that experience, i drew pictures of the incident, and then i kept drawing pictures of just Penny's face. in my pictures, she was all better again.

SleekPelt said...

josh: Great comment, I quoted you on my Facebook dealio.

zee: It's kind of crazy that you just had that discussion. I'm glad I didn't find out the answer to your question first-hand.

vesper de vil: I can only imagine what that would look like to a kid. It's interesting how children work their feeling out through art.

The Dalai Mama said...

I would hate to see something like that. Especially in an environment where help isn't immediately available. I feel for Joe, but I especially feel for his grandson. That would be an extremely difficult thing to see a loved one experience.