I’ve been a passenger on a couple of flights in my lifetime where the pilot gravely announces there’s an emergency, and asks for assistance from those with medical experience.
Those announcements always make my heart pound a bit, and I’ll send up a little prayer for the poor soul, as I crane my neck to see the location of the commotion. That always leaves me feeling a combination of guilt for looking and relief that it’s not happening to me, or someone I love.
Gosh, that would be so awful.
Two weeks ago I was on my way to Hawaii – the place of my birth – for a week’s vacation thanks to an out-of-the-blue gift of a trip provided by a friend, also my travel companion. This would be the first return to Hawaii as an adult for me, Donielle Leilani (yes, Heavenly Flower) Chamberlain.
In the days leading up to the trip I was so excited that I didn’t even allow myself to indulge in anticipation. I just wanted to catch that shuttle to the airport and let the week unfold in whatever magical way it would, and enjoy every minute, which I hoped would include beach time, ocean time and lots of relaxation time.
I joked with my twin that if I got around to it, I’d send her a photo of me in front of the older part of The Queen’s Medical Center, where we were born.
The Hawaiian Airlines flight from Sacramento was about three hours into its five-hour journey when my dream trip became a bloody nightmare.
It was about 20 minutes after lunch when I felt a searing sensation in my abdomen … the kind of discomfort that makes you leap to one – make that two – conclusions: I have food poisoning. I need a bathroom.
My travel companion was asleep, so I made my way to the front of the plane where I waited in line behind a woman who was waiting for the bathroom. I knew I wouldn’t make it. I was going to pass out.
To avoid excessively graphic descriptions, let’s just skip to the part where I finally was revived enough to make it to the bathroom. That’s where it dawned upon me that I was in serious trouble, far beyond food poisoning. An alarming quantity of blood was leaving my body from an opening never intended for that purpose. My reflection in the airplane bathroom mirror showed a cadaver-white woman covered in sweat.
The pilot’s intercom request for medical assistance brought laughter from a loud-mouthed dentist I’d first overhead as we’d boarded. He boasted/complained to another passenger that he hates to let on that he’s in the medical field when he’s on vacation because he always ends up getting bugged to lend professional assistance.
I recognized his voice when he boomed, “Here we go!” Hardy har har.
Fortunately, the joking dentist did not answer the pilot’s call. But two other men did. One was a doctor from Sacramento, who declined to give his name. The other was a contract paramedic from Beale Air Force Base who said his name was John Hughes of Yuba City.
“John Hughes, like Howard?” I asked.
He laughed and said, yes, like Howard Hughes, but without the money.
Within a few minutes after the doctor first talked with me, he directed Hughes to start an IV fluid “bolus” to elevate my blood pressure to a safer range, and to treat the symptoms that followed the blood loss. I granted permission to have Hughes do whatever was necessary to help me.
Meanwhile, when the doctor suggested that I should get to a hospital as soon as the plane landed, I started crying for two reasons. One, I thought I was going to die. Two, I have no health insurance. I told the doctor that maybe whatever happened to me was just something weird that would – uh – pass and then I’d be OK. I’d get off the plane, get my flower lei, get to the hotel and the worst would be over.
The doctor pointed out that if I went to the hotel and continued bleeding, I could end up with a dire situation and precious little time to spare, which would mean I’d have to get to the emergency room, which would take more time. Even I – sans health insurance – could see the wisdom in his logic.
The doctor and Hughes talked some more, and then the doctor returned to his seat.
Hughes, a 39-year-old stocky guy with military-short hair and bright blue eyes, winked as he assured me that he’d successfully started IVs in moving ambulances on even tiny babies, so starting an IV on a plane would be a piece of cake. He’s been working in emergency medical services since he was 18, and Hughes’experience showed in his relaxed air of confidence.
Funny, I don’t remember much of him starting the IV nor do I remember him starting the second bolus, or most of the next two hours. I later found out that I was in shock, which explains my memory lapses. I do remember that Hughes was sitting on the floor next to my seat in the aisle, at first acting as my human IV pole, until an overhead compartment was cleared so the bag could be suspended from there. I remember that from my vantage point I could see a tattoo on one calf that said “MEDIC” with the Greek serpent-and-staff image.
I remember him taking my vitals periodically, and I remember that he talked about how much he was looking forward to the Hawaiian vacation. He’s a single parent, and was heading to Hawaii with his mother, sister and his 11-year-old daughter, all of whom were sitting a ways back on the plane. He said not to worry – his family was used to him coming to people’s aid – even when off-duty.
“It’s what I do,” he said with a grin.
I don’t remember the plane landing, but I remember that as the plane was starting its descent, a flight attendant told Hughes that everyone – even flight attendants – were buckling up for the landing, and Hughes should, too. Hughes said something to the effect of he was responsible for me because he’d started the IV, and so he’d be staying where he was.
He was the only person on the plane not securely fastened with a seat belt.
Everything after that was a blur. I was taken from the plane on a gurney to an ambulance where the EMT who rode in the back with me said there was a hospital nearby where I’d be taken … unless I had another preference.
The Queen’s Medical Center seemed the best bet. I needed all the luck I could get.
It turned out to be good choice, because Queen’s is known as one of the best hospitals in Hawaii. The level of care there, from everyone from housekeeping staff, food service, nurses assistants, and RNs up to residents and physicians – was so unbelievably efficient and genuinely helpful that I found myself wondering if the employees were all on commission or some special bonus program. Everyone behaved in a way that validated their motto – “C.A.R.E.” – seen on signs in every room: Compassion, Aloha, Respect and Excellence. All my life I’d believed and preached the absolute necessity of having someone act as an advocate for loved ones in the hospital. Never once did I feel the need for an advocate at Queen’s.
The other supremely good news was that my friend had wisely purchased a travel insurance policy from Travel Guard, which covers emergencies like mine. Thank you, friend, and thank you, Travel Guard, because the medical bills are already finding their way into my mailbox.
Meanwhile, I wish I had a tidy ending, a plausible explanation for what happened to me, but I don’t. During my three-day stay at the hospital, the pain and bleeding eventually subsided, and during that time I underwent all kinds of lab work and even a CAT scan.
I left without an official diagnosis. I was a medical puzzle, only made more puzzling by a conversation with a young nurse whose jaw dropped when she asked what brought me to Queen’s, and when I told her, she – healthy, fit – said she’d had the EXACT symptoms about a week or so earlier – blood pressure drop, blood loss, etc. – and even went to the emergency room following her Hawaiian Airlines flight from Honolulu to Las Vegas (Hawaiians love Las Vegas, for some reason). Her health returned to normal with no explanation of what happened.
The nurse and I talked a lot about our stories’ similarities: both followed a flight on Hawaiian Airlines, both within a short time of one another, both totally unexpected symptoms in healthy women who’d never had anything remotely like that ever happen to either of us. Was there something – poison, glass – in the food? If so, why didn’t everyone on the plane have the same reaction?
I left the hospital, and spent the remainder of my vacation in Hawaii doing exactly what I’d hoped. I read, I relaxed, I spent time on the beach and in the ocean.
All the while, in the back of my mind I wondered if I’d have another episode like the one on the plane. I was a bit anxious about the flight home, too. But as the week wore on, the whole experience on the plane and in the hospital seemed like a bad dream.
Did it really happen?
My answer was confirmed at the Honolulu Airport for the return trip to Sacramento. There in the airport stood John Hughes, and his mother, sister and daughter. We were all booked on the same flight.
I hugged and thanked John. I talked with his mother, who beamed with pride and said that from the time her son was 3 he’d wanted to be a paramedic and help people.
And by the way, John said he and his family had a great time in Hawaii, and that he and his daughter did all the cool Hawaii stuff, like parasail.
We exchanged business cards, and boarded the plane for a blessedly uneventful flight (I brought my own food).
Since then Hughes and I have had a chance to catch up, and I’ve learned a bit more about Hughes, this medic in the sky. For one thing, in addition to being in charge of continuing medical training education, quality improvement and answering paramedic calls at Beale Air Force base, he’s a business-owner of EMSSCES 911 (Emergency Medical Services, Continuing Educational Services 911).
In that capacity, he trains doctors and nurses in emergency medical training, but he also teaches those skills to lay people, like daycare providers and teachers, as well as hospital staff.
For Hughes, his job is a calling, something Hughes does because he cares about people, and he wants to ease suffering whenever possible.
“I help people for a living,” he said. “I am a paramedic. That will never change.”
Regarding helping, Hughes said that after my airplane episode, he shared with some colleagues – a mix of doctors, nurses and another paramedic – what had happened, and that he’d taken care of me until the plane landed.
He said that the consensus of their reactions was that if they were in his shoes, they wouldn’t have helped me – because of liability reasons.
I have no doubt that’s why the doctor on the plane didn’t want to disclose his name to me.
For a guy like Hughes, his tendency to put himself in the shoes of the injured exceeds his fear of lawsuits.
“I would hope that someone would step forward and help me, as I helped you,” Hughes said.
“I do believe in pay it forward. I made sure you were OK with everything and that you consented to everything, not to keep from being sued, but because that is what you are supposed to do. At no time while treating you did I think you would sue me. Unfortunately, in this world of suit-happy people, it is keeping many trained medical people from helping out.”
Vacation time is over, and Hughes is back at work at Beale Air Force Base and at his EMSCES911 business.
If you live in the Yuba City area, you might be lucky enough to see Hughes behind the wheel of a big yellow Humvee with his company name on its side.
And maybe in small print you’ll read something else.
Medic in the sky.
Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded what’s now known as anewscafe.com in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke of the Czech Republic. Prior to 2007 Chamberlain was an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Redding, CA.