Monday, July 23, 2012

Attempted Suicide?

Incredibly, only three days after the medical event you read about in Call Me, it happened again. We were approaching the final hour in the Washington-Seattle flight. I was thumbing through approach and airfield pages to select the ones I would be needing soon.

'Dings' (the little single note bell you hear when a flight attendant calls) come often. The first officer usually answers because chances are it's an air conditioning request and the controls for that are on his side. But I can always tell there's trouble afoot by the way he/she reacts to the call. If he answers and cuts eyes immediately toward me I know something unusual is up.

So, you can imagine what I thought when I heard him say, “What do you mean they are giving her oxygen? Who's 'her'? Who's 'they'?” He listened longer, staring at me. “Wait,” he said, “The boss needs to hear this.”

I punched my service button and asked what was going on. “You don't know?” she said, surprised. “I thought the flight attendants in the back called you.” This riled me. Something serious was happening and they had left us in the cockpit out of the loop.

A 25 year old woman lay unconscious on the aft galley floor. Two doctors and two EMTs, all of whom were passengers, were tending her. The two flight attendants working the aft galley―I later learned―were cut off from their communications panel by the mass of people tending the woman. They could call neither the Lead flight attendant nor me. The fourth flight attendant, standing in the aft aisle, couldn't tell what was happening, but at least she could have went to the mid-ship station and called up front to tell us something unusual was going on. She assumed someone else did. 

The Lead flight attendant, whose station is just behind the cockpit has the responsibility of overall cabin management and keeping the captain informed. She didn't live up to her title. Basically, our situation in the far aft of the plane was a mild chaos

All I knew was we had a medical emergency―again.

I looked at the EHSI. Spokane was coming under the nose. That looked like a good place to go. I sent a “CALL ME” message to dispatch. A response flashed within a few seconds and I made contact on a good frequency. That was a big relief after the fiasco I had endured two days back.

While Dispatch set up a conference call with Medlink the Lead tried to fill me in. The woman's boyfriend had been pouring liquor down her since the beginning of the flight. After she was thoroughly sauced he picked at point 36,000 over Coeur d' Alene, Idaho to inform her he was dumping her. She became hysterical and fled into the aft galley lav where she proceeded to swallow every pill she had, which included asthma medicine and ant-depressants. She came out and collapsed. 

The passengers responded, not the crew. The two doctors and the two EMTs sprang to the aft galley and began tending the woman. The flight attendants stepped back and watched. They became passengers.  

The doctors asked for our onboard emergency medical kit, which can only be used by a credentialed medical professional. They had taken her vitals and were giving her medical oxygen.

Then Medlink came up. I passed on the info I had. The Medlink doc asked more questions. I put him on hold. By now Spokane was receding behind our tail. Decision time was coming. I told the first officer to begin preparing for a Spokane divert but to hold off till I gave word. Medlink held while I returned to the service interphone and asked to speak to one of the doctors in back. A very calm voice came up and gave me the info Medlink requested, plus more. I said, “Doctor we are 15 minutes from Spokane and 30 from Seattle. What do you want me to do?” He said, “Let's take her to Seattle. The care there for this will be better.” I relayed that to Medlink and he concurred.

I resumed control of the plane (it was my leg) and the first officer declared a medical emergency. We then had a free pass to break the sound barrier, if we could have. We pushed the airspeed to the barber pole and got permission to bust the mandatory 250 knot limit below 10,000.

A few minutes later we were rocketing across the foothills west of the Cascades at 350 knots, barely 2000 feet above the terrain. Quickly the airport appeared. The last thing I wanted was a go-around so I started the slow down about 20 miles out. They gave us the inboard runway. I planted it, jumped in to the brakes and reversers and had we were in the gate in about a minute. Red and blue lights greeted our arrival, flashing everywhere.

The passengers obeyed their orders to stay seated while the EMTs took the woman off. As she passed by the cockpit I saw she was conscious but delirious, crying, moaning and saying words I couldn't understand.

I called a crew meeting after everyone had left. It was unacceptable that the pilots did not know about this incident until 15 minutes into it. If the woman's condition had been more serious the extra few minutes at high altitude versus descending toward Spokane could have made a critical difference. I told the two who said they were cut off from their com panel to use their authority as crew members to clear the area and do their job. I explained what “assume” meant to the one who lurked in the aisle and watched.

Another report had to be generated that night. I hate reports.

But I love smoking along at 400 mph close to the ground. Haven't done that in many moons. At latest that part was fun. The guy sitting to my right had never done it.

I wonder if the most persistent memory I'll have of this job when I leave it is that obtrusive little sound that can bear any manner of message from: "Your meals are ready," to "There are four men back here threatening to...."


"I knew, like hearing the faint tingling of a distant bell when the ear really awaits a tolling, that tiny excitation of my fear glands...It teased and became almost a pleasurable sensation."
  Earnest Gann
  Fate is the Hunter

I treat you with a Mt. Shasta crossing--and my lunch in my lap.