Like most people, I had never been on a flight that diverted to take a passenger to a hospital. Recently, I was not only on such a flight, I was the passenger carried off to a waiting ambulance.
When people save your life, it is proper to say, “thank you.” I said thank you directly to people on the airplane, in the ambulance, and at Creighton University Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska. Since then, I keep saying “thank you” indirectly by being kind to others and helping strangers. Writing about what happened is one more way of saying, “thank you.”
My unscheduled landing occurred when I visited my mother in Ohio in May. As I prepared to fly home to Los Angeles, I developed a horrible cough that I thought was merely a combination of my sketchy lungs and pollen from the flowering trees in southern Ohio. No big deal. Been there, done this. I took a little extra medicine and drove to the airport.
But when I got to the airport, nausea hit. I scanned the lobby for the closest restroom or trash can as my cheeks started looking like a chipmunk’s. While a disembodied airport voice said, “Do not leave bags unattended,” I abandoned my purse and luggage and ran as fast as I could. The only trash cans close enough were at the security checkpoint. Choosing the one labeled “Deposit Liquids Here,” I did what it said. As I leaned over the bin and rested on my elbows, a TSA agent brought me alcohol wipes and paper towels. Then he returned to checking travelers’ identification and boarding passes.
I went back to my luggage, took more medicine, and thought I could get everything under control. Wrong. The problem was bigger than I imagined.
As soon as we were in the air, my nausea returned. Those poor passengers on the flight with me – I was publicly ill for 90 minutes. Two nurses and a physician who were fellow travelers monitored my vital signs, wiped my forehead, and knelt on the floor beside me so I was never alone. Nearby passengers gave their jackets to keep me warm. (Domestic airlines no longer stock blankets.) The pilot called Medical Stat on the ground to apprise them of the situation.
When my blood pressure dropped too low and I went into shock, they directed the pilot to divert to Omaha. Paramedics carried me off the plane and loaded me into an ambulance, then raced with me to the hospital, siren wailing and lights flashing.
Even though my pneumonia vaccine was up-to-date, I had caught pneumonia on my trip. This, not pollen, caused my wicked cough. If I had realized I had pneumonia, I would not have put myself and others at risk on a cross-country flight. The pneumonia triggered a life-threatening adrenal crisis, hence the nausea and shock.
Doctors diagnosed and stabilized me the emergency room, then admitted me to the hospital.
After two days of superb care – if you need a hospital in Omaha, I recommend Creighton University Medical Center – I flew home. My pneumonia is long gone. I am still working on the adrenal issues.
I have forgotten the names of the hospital staff, students, and doctors who cared for me and kept this stranger company. I don’t know the names of the TSA agent who gave me towels, the people who cared for me on the plane, the passengers whose jackets kept me warm, or the gorgeous paramedics who carried me from the airplane. Nor do I know the names of the Southwest pilot who detoured to save my life, the employees who took care of me in the air and those who arranged the last leg of my travel. Each offered what he or she could to help a stranger. The “thank you” I said to them in person seems insignificant. I wish I could make their generosity and kindness as pervasive in the world as the air we breathe.
When asked at the end of his life what advice he would give, Henry James said, “Three things in life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.”
I think of this as I watch health workers and others care selflessly for Ebola patients. As I listen to students share how much their tutors mean to them. As I interact with fellow customers in the produce department at the local market and hold the door for someone at the gas station. As I drop a Get Well card in the mail to my mother back east. As I greet clients who come to the food pantry, As I bring a Ghirardelli brownie and glass of milk pie to my husband. Kindness saves lives in more ways than one.