Is there a doctor on board?

Qantas plane“Is there a doctor on board?” I used to wish a call like this would go out while I was flying. I had this romantic idea of saving the day, being showered with praise and upgrades, the cabin bursting into spontaneous applause; joining the medical equivalent of the mile-high club.

On a return trip from Canada, my dream was put to the test: LA to Brisbane, 13 hours of economy-class hell, barely a spare seat on the plane and surrounded by more energy reserves than needed to sustain an African village for a year. Yep, morbidly obese Americans — in front, beside and behind me.

The three seated behind me took the cake (actually I suspect they’d taken many a cake in their time). Dad was as loud as he was wide, and his demands and complaints kept the poor flight attendants on their toes.

“I’ve heard this called ‘cattle class’, but I own a big ranch in Texas and, let me tell ya, my cows have more room when they travel than we do here.”

I wanted to point out that most humans were smaller than bovines, and require less room, but I resisted.

“My wife is pregnant and these here cramped conditions are dangerous for the baby. Never flown ‘coach’ before.”

Why did he start doing so now — on a long-haul, trans-Pacific flight with a pregnant wife and, more importantly, me in the next row?

“But now that I’ve been jammed into this damn midget seat, I intend to take up the matter with the airlines — and my lawyer! It shouldn’t be legal!”

Mom’s mouth was mostly occupied with chewing, but in between mouthfuls she let forth a lungful or two. Their four-year-old butterball rhythmically kicked the back of my seat but I didn’t feel I should admonish him — after all, he was exercising!

In the end, I could take no more. I can count the number of times I’ve ever taken a sedative on one hand, but these were desperate times, and a Stillnox allowed me to sleep.

The word ‘doctor’ penetrated my groggy haze.

“She’s got a lotta pain in her belly. We need a doctor — now! It could be the baby! I told you these tiny seats were dangerous!”

Soon enough, the call for medical assistance came over the PA.

“How pregnant?” I wondered. It was impossible to tell from her body habitus — as in the song from Oklahoma, she was “as round above as she was round below”. I had visions of trying to deliver the premmie baby of an obese, litigious American on a crowded plane and half-asleep, I decided discretion would be the better part of valour. I lay in wait, fervently hoping I’d be beaten to the punch.

Luckily, three altruistic medicos swooped in as I watched from my seat. The ophthalmologist and psychiatrist from business class weren’t particularly useful, but the third-year resident from the rear of the plane was marvellous. How he examined her in the space confines I have no idea, but efficiently and professionally he was able to reassure her that her burning epigastric pain was unrelated to her seven-week pregnancy. An antacid was produced from somewhere and the pain settled rapidly.

He was proclaimed a hero and upgraded to business class for the remaining nine hours of the flight. Meanwhile, now wide awake, I was left in the company of my still-whining neighbours, to pay the penance for my inaction.

First published in Australian Doctor 31st March, 2011: On Airline Anguish

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