“Ladies and Gentlemen, if there is a doctor on board, please could they notify a member of the crew…”

Originally written January 28th 2014

Last time I wrote, I had mentioned that Danielle and I were to be flying home to London (via Singapore) the next day. Never did I think I would be writing about the flight itself but it turned out to be quite an adventure. Here’s what happened…

Danielle and I had boarded our flight home in worry and trepidation – the thought of getting on a plane for nearly an entire day (with only half an hour to walk around Singapore airport in the middle) was more than daunting – we both feared for our comfort, desperate need for sleep and our sanity. Thankfully, the new British Airways in flight entertainment systems are really easy to use and have a wide selection of Movies and TV to watch and the seat is really comfortable (unlike the Economy class in many other airlines with which I’ve flown). I had just finished watching The Butler (it’s great – see it if you can) and was about 25 minutes into Enough Said (starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini in his last role before passing away – also fantastic!). Then, the entertainment was paused for what I thought would be one of those “the fasten seatbelt sign is on” announcements. Instead, it was the tannoy call that so many people in the medical profession dread…

“Ladies and Gentlemen, if there is a doctor on board, please could they notify a member of the crew…”

I took off my headphones and looked at Danielle, who was smiling in a nervous kind of way. “I’m going to go and tell them I’m a medical student and that I’m four months away from qualifying but if there’s anyone more qualified than me, they should take over” I told her. She agreed and wished me luck. I stood up and on my way to finding a flight attendant it was as if every piece of Emergency Medicine flashed through my mind. I was mentally preparing myself for a heart-attack, a childbirth or a stroke. I found a member of the crew, gave her the spiel and she took me to the passenger needing help.

The “patient”, a very friendly and intelligent man from the USA, was sitting next to his very friendly and helpful wife in Business Class, blood gushing from his nose and mouth. He had recently had nasal surgery and they hadn’t cauterised one of the veins properly (essentially this means zapping blood vessels to close them off and stop them bleeding). When I arrived, the bag he was holding as a receptacle for the blood had only a few hundred mLs in it. Initially, I assessed the splendid  in terms of Airways, Breathing and Circulation (St George’s Med School be proud) and made sure he was stable. Then, in order to try stem the bleeding, I packed his nostrils with gauze and Otravine (which shuts down blood vessels in the nose) – which worked for a while.

Throughout this time, the fantastic BA crew on board were extremely helpful and attentive and had been in continual contact with MedLink on the ground. Then, the question was put to me: “do you think this man needs to go to hospital and if so, would you like us to land the plane in the next hour?”

At this point, the blood loss had risen to about 500-600 mL and the man was starting to get a bit more anxious and at times light-headed. More worryingly, he had been intermittently been choking on large bits of clotted blood which I was finding increasingly difficult to scoop out of his oral cavity with my finger. We decided to land the plane in Darwin (the tip of Northern Australia), where there would be Paramedics waiting for us, in order to take the gentleman and his wife to hospital. I returned to my seat relieved to know that he was stable and on his way to properly equipped medical care.

I hadn’t been back at my seat for longer than a few minutes when we were approached by a very kind crew member who asked us to gather our belongings and go with her to another area of the plane, as a gesture of gratitude from British Airways and for both of us to relax a little. We both couldn’t believe it, we had been brought to First Class, to sit in a seat so comfortable it made me want to live on a plane forever. The CSM (Customer Service Manager) and Pilot both came to thank us and speak to us about what happened.

As I was sitting there thinking about what had just happened, I looked over to the seat on my right – seat 2K. I knew that seat from somewhere in my life – it had been the seat I had travelled in as a cancer patient, on my flight back to London from Sydney, almost 10 years prior (the airline and insurance company very kindly made that possible). It was crazy to think about how different things were to how they are now. Back then, my body was weakened and I was vulnerable, needing a personal Nurse to accompany us for the flight. Now, I was stronger, more educated, (hopefully) wiser and I was the caregiver.

I got chatting to the flight attendant who had brought us to our new seats, I explained why we had been in Australia, only to find out that she too had been treated for cancer in London at the same time as me. It’s funny how when two survivors meet, there is an immediately acquired level of camaraderie and understanding regarding each other’s experience and outlook on things. (I think I’ll talk more about this in a later post though!)

So, a couple of flights and another upgrade later (thank you so much again, British Airways), we made it home – with one more story to tell. However, I must say that the outcome would not have been so positive and as much of a success had it not been for the man himself and his wife (they were both unbelievably calm and easy to work with) and the British Airways Crew, who all approached this challenging and difficult situation with fantastic professionalism, an iron nerve and who were more helpful than I could ever have asked for – thank you!