“Is there a doctor on board?”
Every physician’s nightmare. Medical emergency in midflight.
The woman in the next seat grabbed Sarah’s arm. “Did you hear that? They’re calling for a doctor.”
Why did she have to tell this nosey woman that she was a doctor?
There had to be at least one other doctor on board—someone who wasn’t jet-lagged and sleep deprived. She had not slept a wink during the five-hour layover in Amsterdam. Besides, she was trapped in her seat by vegetarian lasagna. The other choice was salmon, and her mother always said you shouldn’t eat fish on an airplane.
The PA system repeated the plea. “Is there a doctor on board?” The woman beside her snatched the lasagna and commanded, “Go!”
The plane was packed. Rows and rows of weary people. Just like the midnight crowd in the waiting room of the Philadelphia Memorial Hospital Emergency Room.
But this wasn’t a hospital. Just a tin can, stuffed with hundreds of people, hurtling in an eight-mile high arc between continents. No X-ray. No EKG. No stethoscope. Probably no defibrillator.
Two flight attendants in Delft blue uniforms hovered over a foot projecting into the aisle at a peculiar angle. A familiar queasy wave washed over her, and she prayed for something simple. A hangnail, airsickness…even a nosebleed wouldn’t be too bad.
Please God, don’t let it be a heart attack.
The man connected to the foot slumped forward; face plastered to his tray table. Sarah grabbed his wrist. No pulse. But his heart had to be beating because he was breathing. Wheezing, yes, but still breathing. He wasn’t dead. Yet. She tapped him on the shoulder. “Sir, are you having any chest pain?”
“No,” he whispered.
A woman kneeling on the seat beside him brandished his food tray like a sword. “This is fish, isn’t it? He’s allergic to fish—he told you that!”
A flight attendant grabbed the tray. “He ate the salmon?”
“I thought it was chicken,” he mumbled.
Sarah glanced at the flight attendant’ name badge. “Anika, do you have an emergency kit? “
“Yes, I’ll go fetch it.” Both blue uniforms fled to the galley.
Airway, breathing, circulation. The emergency ABC mantra.
He wasn’t breathing so well, and his circulation sucked. No room to get his head between his knees. And if he needed CPR, he’d have to be on a flat surface. She lifted his head to stow the tray table. “Let’s get you out of this seat.”
He didn’t respond. Floppy as a rubber chicken. She grabbed him by the armpits and tugged in a futile attempt to get him out into the aisle, but he was glued to his seat. His lady companion had disintegrated into blubbering and moaning and a little boy with curly red hair and freckles in the next row peeked over the seatback and giggled.
Poor man, his life was slipping away, as surely as if he were being sucked out through a rent in the side of the plane. Sarah was his best hope, his only hope, and she was failing miserably. She locked her arms around his chest and pulled with all her might, but he wouldn’t budge.
It was hopeless.
Until a help appeared. A young black woman with closely cropped hair spoke in a clipped African accent. “Golly, he seems in a bad way. Can I help?”
“Yes, please. Grab his knees.” Not the world’s smoothest transfer, but they managed to get him stretched out in the aisle without banging his head on something. Within seconds, his lips went from gray to pink.
“You’re a Godsend,” said Sarah. “He looks a ton better, just getting horizontal.”
“What’s your working diagnosis?”
“Anaphylaxis. He’s allergic to fish.”
Anika returned with the emergency kit, a black canvas bag stuffed with pills and bottles and bags and needles. Sarah snapped a tourniquet around his arm and searched for a vein while her colleague poked through the bag, muttering to herself, “Adrenaline, adrenaline, where are you?”
Anika tapped the African woman on the shoulder. “Are you a nurse?”
“I am a doctor. In fact, I am a surgeon.” She pulled a colorful plastic tube from the bag and waved it at Sarah. “What’s this?”
“Yep. Stick it into his thigh. It’s a sturdy needle. You can poke it right through his pants.”
“Wow, this is very cool. We don’t have anything like this at NTMC.”
Sarah threaded a needle into a vein and popped off the tourniquet. “NTMC. That’s Northern Tanzania Medical Center, right?”
“You’ve heard of it?”
“That’s where I’m headed.” Sarah connected the tubing and started the flow of sugar water into the vein.
The man opened his eyes and gazed up at the women bending over him.
Anika wrung her hands, “Should I ask the pilot to land the plane? He says he can stop in Khartoum.”
Sarah tried to suppress a gasp. “Like…Sudan?”
“That’s the closest airport.”
The man sat up slowly. His blood pressure was 90 over 60. No need for an emergency landing. Sarah plopped on the floor and sighed with a blend of relief and exhaustion. Adrenaline had propelled her through the crisis, but now she was spent.
The African surgeon cleared her throat. “You’re going to NTMC?”
“Yeah, I’ll be there for a year.”
“I guess we’ll be working together.” She extended her hand. “My name is Margo. Margo Ledama.”
“I’m Sarah Whitaker. Now I know at least one person on this continent.”
Anika pointed out that the man could not stay on the floor. “We must keep the aisle clear. Unfortunately, the plane is full. I have no place for him to lie down.”
They helped him back into his seat. Margo rigged a way to hang the IV fluid from the overhead compartment and winked at Anika. “You should bump us up to Business Class for this.”
“I wish we could do that. I can offer you some little rewards. And I need you to fill out some forms.” In the galley, she presented each doctor with a business class amenity bag and a clipboard.
Margo paused in filling out the form, tapped the pen against her chin. “I’m not really a full-fledged surgeon yet. One more year of training.”
“Me too. I’m taking a break before my chief year. Got a scholarship to study maternal mortality in East Africa.”
“Ah—So you’re the new OB fellow. You’ll be delivering lots of babies.”
Sarah shook her head. “I’m a surgeon—not OBGyn. I’ll be doing research.”
Margo raised one eyebrow. “Research?”
The plane began to pitch and bounce, and the pilot’s voice rang out, “We’re encountering some turbulence, so I’m turning on the fasten seat belt sign. If you’re up and about the cabin, please return to your seat.”
The woman in the next seat patted Sarah’s arm. “It’s lucky you were on the plane.”
“I’m glad it wasn’t something more serious.”
“You’re so inspiring. A missionary in Africa.”
“I’m not a missionary. I’ll be doing research.”
“Either way, you’ll be helping people. So noble. So brave. You could get Ebola or--”
“Africa is a big continent. There’s no Ebola in Tanzania.” Sarah did not feel noble or brave. The last time she felt like this, she was eight years old, standing on the high diving board, gazing down into cold blue water, a chorus of children taunting her to jump. It was too late to turn back.
The amenity bag contained a few useful items: lip balm, hand lotion, a sleeping mask, some cozy socks… She put on the socks and her noise-cancelling headphones and tipped her seat back as far as it would go. Sleep would not come. Outside, monotonous beige sand spread all the way to the curved horizon. She fiddled with the ring on her left hand. It still felt foreign. And it was loose. No time to get it sized. A ray of sunshine splashed onto the square-cut diamond, sprinkling little rainbow sparkles onto the wall and the seatback in front of her.