Tuesday 7 January 2014

Making do aloft

The Boy and his family flew to Capetown in November to visit family.  They needed to travel before The Wean's 2nd birthday or pay for her seat.  On the way back they stopped off somewhere else to visit another branch of the family for few days.  The Wean had been sick enough in South Africa to warrant a quick trip to out-patients at a local hospital, so was a little wobbly.  As they assembled to board the planse for the last to UK leg of their journey, she barfed copiously over herself and parents.  The airline was throwing shapes to prevent them boarding the plane until the child was less obviously unwell.  They didn't want to deal with a sick child (who knows what she'd picked up in Africa - dengue fever? yellow-jack? equine encephalitis? - and how quickly it might develop).  At that stage, the parents just wanted to get home and by signing an indemnity and putting on their poshest accents they blagged themselves onto the plane.  Nothing untoward happened in the air.

Airlines must have a racial memory or at least a database of airborne crises.  With so many people travelling, and such a high proportion of them fat, unfit, white people, these events must be really common.  I don't do much air-travel.  The nearest I came to a medical emergency on a plane was about 5 feet. In 1999, I made a day-trip to Manchester from Dublin to push back the frontiers of science. On the way back, a glass bottle of duty-free gin fell out of an over-head bin and poleaxed the passenger across the aisle and one row back from me.  She was concussed and bleeding and taken off the plane before leaving Manchester. I often wonder whether the chap who bought the bottle was able to drink it.

In 1996, Paula Dixon was hurrying to catch a flight from Hong Kong to Heathrow when she took a tumble off her mobilette and banged herself up a bit.  She made it to the gate on time, nevertheless, and figured she could sleep off the pain on the long flight to England.  Shortly after take-off the pain got too much to bear, so she called a hostie, who tannoyed the dreaded "Is there a doctor on the flight?".  There were two: Angus Wallace and Tom Wong, who jimmied up a splint for a fractured right arm.  Ms Dixon then reported that the pain was extending from her arm across her chest and a closer look revealed that she probably had a pneumothorax - a broken rib had punctured her chest cavity so that her lung had collapsed.  There is a simple remedy for this in theatre (either operating or movie!): you punch a hole in the chest-wall and bleed off the air which is on the wrong side of the lung.  But there was no thoracic catheter available (any more than there was a spare hip-joint) just a regular urinary catheter. Wallace decided that his patient would likely die a) unless something was done quickly b) if they made an emergency landing where the pressure change would precipitate the crisis. They braced up the catheter with metal coat hanger so that they could push it through the muscle into the chest, Wong used a fork and spoon as surgical clamps while Wallace made the incision and inserted one end of the tube.  The other end was dunked into a bottle of sterile evian water, so that no air would reflux.  Everything was sterilised with Courvoisier brandy, of which Wallace had a generous tot after he'd finished. By the time they landed several hours later, Dixon was tucking into an in-flight meal and feeling a lot better.  Now that's what I call a Good Pair of Hands.

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