life and death

I’m not sure but I think a man died within six feet of me yesterday.  This was on a jet that was just about ready to close its doors for departure in O’Hare.  They had not given up on him when they carried him out, but everyone involved was treating it as fatal.  I noticed the couple while waiting to board.  They stood out amid the jeans and shorts because they were very dressed up, he in a suit and tie and she in a dress.  They were middle-aged and looked vaguely Southeast Asian and spoke with some accent.   They sat one row behind me, across the aisle; I was on the aisle seat.  We were all seated, they were preparing to close the door.  The man one row back and on the other side started making strange coughing/wheezing sounds.  I looked back and saw him looking ill, a strange kind of gasping but I did not recognize it as anything dangerously bad.  (Later, I heard a flight attendant describe the coughing symptoms and say it sounded like a typical heart attack, while my seat mate said he thought it was more like congestive heart failure.)   Then his wife started calling for help.  The flight attendant came and she asked for a doctor.  A man two aisles up stood up to help.  There was some more talk and I heard someone say, “We need more help.”  More people came and then an announcement over the PA asking for doctors.  I heard someone say that the first volunteer was a psychiatrist.  Someone stood up and said she was a nurse, then several more middle-aged men came back from first class. 

You could tell now that this was serious, very serious.  They talked quickly about needing to get him lying down and to get his wife out from the window seat.  I moved over to the empty middle seat next to me to help make room and the wife stood next to me for a few minutes, but then the flight attendant seated her behind me – in the same row across from her husband so she could watch.  There was a flurry of discussion and work as they were taking pulse, flight attendants bringing equipment, talking about how long it would take the EMT to get there.  Then the wife started screaming, “He’s dead, he’s dead.”  She kept screaming hysterically and did not stop for the next 40 minutes.  Some talk among the doctors about how long it had been, I’m not sure since what, but somebody was saying it had been 8 minutes since something.  A defilibrator was brought in, the talking kind that gives very detailed instructions about where to place the pads, tells everyone very clearly and loudly not to touch the patient during the shock, then says “It is now OK to touch the patient.”  The defilibrator kept talking about not getting a good contact.  I heard the flight attendant tell the doctors that they had started the day in Indianapolis, that they were traveling to Asia, not from Asia, which seemed to be treated as important information.   I could not see most of what was happening, just hear, and I can’t get all the order of events clear in my memory.  It seemed wrong to stand up and gawk.  For a while I tried to continue reading the article I was reviewing, but that seemed wrong, too.  So mostly I sat quietly and prayed.

Finally the EMTs arrived, about 8 of them.  But there were many more minutes with the doctors and the EMTs still working.  And the wife was still screaming hysterically throughout.  Loudly, crying and wailing and screaming at the top of her lungs.  Finally I heard someone say, “We have to get her out of here.”  A flight attendant and an EMT carried her bodily out, she was literally kicking and screaming the whole way down the aisle.  We could still hear her screaming and wailing after she was off the airplane.  It was about 45 minutes before the man was taken off the plane.  He had an oxygen bag over his face and they had not given up on him, but all the indications from the professionals’ behavior were bad.

The man across from me, who had to stand up to make room for the doctors and watched the whole thing, called someone on his cell phone and said, “A man just died behind me.”  Most of the passengers seemed to be like me, mostly just silent.  Some passengers and flight attendants were crying.  A row of teenage girls who had been sitting right behind him looked terrified.  The flight attendants were hugging each other and trying to console the passengers.  The pilot, a middle-aged white guy, came in and tried to cheer everyone up – definitely a discordant note.  After the patient was off the plane and the screaming had stopped and doctors and flight attendants had picked up the mess of medical equipment and supplies and located the couple’s possessions, we still had to wait another 30 minutes while the plane’s medical supplies were restocked.  And then bad weather led to more delays, so that in all we were delayed two hours.  Nobody complained.  I heard a lot of philosophical cell phone calls about putting things into perspective.

I also thought, over and over, thank God this happened while we were still on the ground.  This was very bad, but it would have been so much worse in the air.

Author: olderwoman

I'm a sociology professor but not only a sociology professor. I keep my name out of this blog because I don't want my name associated with it in a Google search. Although I never write anything in a public forum like a blog that I'd be ashamed to have associated with my name (and you shouldn't either), it is illegal for me to use my position as a public employee to advance my religious or political views, and the pseudonym helps to preserve the distinction between my public and private identities. The pseudonym also helps to protect the people I may write about in describing public or semi-public events I've been involved with. You can read about my academic work on my academic blog --Pam Oliver

8 thoughts on “life and death”

  1. The man across from me, who had to stand up to make room for the doctors and watched the whole thing, called someone on his cell phone and said, “A man just died behind me.”


  2. It seemed crass as he also kept saying “it was wild,” but I think he was really shocked and wanted to talk about the experience using the only vocabulary he had. I know I did. And I wrote about it for the same reason. He also was calling to explain his delay.

  3. How traumatic, for everyone. I’m sure it does help people to talk about it, however they know how.

    Being on a plane is such a strange situation. Clearly this is true on the ground, too.

  4. Oddly enough this makes me realize how lucky most of us are. Witnessing a grown man die is actually an unusual and even shocking experience for us. How many other humans alive now, much less historically, would be able to say the same thing?

  5. This sounds intense. I can see that people would want to talk about it, although hopefully in a way that doesn’t add to other people’s distress (this is where speaking obscure languages can be really helpful).

    It’s very hard to know what to do in such situations.

    And yes, things like this in the air must be that much more difficult. I’ve read stories of cross-continental flights where people who’d died were placed in various sections of the plane. Can’t be easy for anyone involved.

  6. I think I was a bit unclear. The man whose call seemed crass did it after the patient and his wife were off the plane.

  7. That time when they were working to save him must have felt like hours – in my limited experience, emergencies happen in slow motion. Plus, not knowing the other people, in addition to being scary, it must have also felt so uncomfortable. It’s just not experience that we have convenient social scripts to fall back on, because it’s so unexpected. Wow.

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