Not All Aircraft Disruptions Have an Unhappy End | Columns

We were sailing above the clouds, six miles up when it happened.

An elderly gentleman two rows ahead of me stood in the aisle and told no one and everyone at once that he needed help.

“He’s claustrophobic and can’t breathe,” said a young man standing next to him. “Can someone help?”

The man was in trouble – the kind of trouble best relieved by getting out of the tight space and into the fresh air. But as we traversed space in a tin can, that wasn’t going to happen.

Like yawning in church, anxiety and panic are contagious. Watching the flight attendants rush down the aisle to the passenger, I felt the familiar tightening in my chest. I, too, can get anxious in tight spaces, and a middle seat on a crowded plane is as tight as it gets.

I thought of the little pill in the zippered pocket of my purse, the only Xanax left over from a medical procedure years ago. I had brought it just in case I needed it during the flight. As the pilot called for all “qualified medical professionals” to come forward, I reached for my bag to get the pill, but not for me, for him. Would the flight attendants allow me to offer it to the passenger?

Two women ran alongside him. Were they nurses? Doctors? They calmed the man down as a flight attendant brought in an oxygen cylinder and a blood pressure cuff. Passengers poked their heads into the aisle to listen to the drama unfold. It seemed intrusive, so I put on my headphones and listened to some music. Soothing music.

For the remainder of the flight, the passenger had helpers around him. I thought about the other kind of drama so common on flights during the pandemic – the hundreds of reported incidents in which drunken, obnoxious passengers attack flight attendants and each other over mask warrants. My flight crisis was the opposite of that.

Can there be anything more frightening or helpless than having a physical or mental health crisis on an airplane? This elderly gentleman was trapped in his panic, and I could understand that. Once I was trapped in an elevator for five thrilling minutes. It was like five o’clock.

A recent study estimates that approximately 14% of American workers are healthcare professionals. Apply that stat to a plane carrying 150 passengers and there’s a good chance there’s a doctor or nurse on board. The two women who stepped forward may not have had to save the man’s life, but they saved the day for him and for the rest of us. The flight landed on time. When we got to the gate, paramedics were waiting to board.

After a few minutes, the patient got up and, with help, got off the plane. The rest of us cheered him on and cheered him on. As flight attendants and aides walked down the aisle behind him, we all cheered them on equally through our masks.

Air travel isn’t all bad, and most people are good. This poor guy’s terrifying moment was made easier because the flight attendants were trained and because these two strangers were willing to help.

As I walked down the jetway towards the airport, I saw the man sitting there surrounded by his family. I hope he had a good sunny holiday. I knew I would.

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