Terror on the Tarmac

Cardiac arrest on board the plane. Paramedics move the patient to a wheelchair.

Cardiac Arrest on Manchester, NH-bound Flight

Midway Airport. Chicago —  “Mark!” A woman shouted.  “Mark, MARK!!!” she screamed. I had just settled into my seat near the back of the plane, Southwest Airlines Flight #965. It was 10:30 am. My wife and 82-year old mother-in-law were seated together farther forward. My son was just two rows up from me on the port side in an aisle seat.  He had a bird’s-eye view directly to his right.

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Mark!” she screamed again.  Now I stood up.  “MARK, MARK, MARK!!!”  Now she was sobbing and getting hoarse. A woman appeared by her side saying she was a nurse. Another woman shouted “he’s having a seizure.” The woman seated to my right said quietly and somewhat hesitantly, I’m a PA.” I stepped aside and backwards into the aisle, urging her forward. I said, “We have a PA here,” pointing to my seat mate. The sea of onlookers gathered around row 21 stepped aside. It was like waves parting for a large ship in a stormy sea. The PA [physician’s assistant] stepped into the row with the man now leaning erratically to his right. The top of his head, balding, looked stark white. I could barely see him otherwise. The woman yelling “Mark” was now shaking uncontrollably. The earnest crowd gently steered her to the back of the plane, just behind me. A flight attendant tried to console her, then asked me for help. The woman was in shock. I’d seen this before, but she stood against all odds holding onto the seat back behind me. I hugged her gently. Just one hand on her shoulder. I told her there was a physician’s assistant and a nurse, and that Mark was in good hands. I asked her if she would be strong for Mark because he was going to need her. She nodded. She seemed more resolute.

Deboarding the patient, “Mark.”

Then, another woman, petite, blonde, and with a knee brace went climbing past me, getting into the row in front of me and just behind Mark where he now lay on his back, head toward the window, with two women giving him chest compressions. 30 quick presses at a time, then lifesaving breaths into an unknown mouth. They never hesitated. Then they’d switch roles, almost like a choreographed dance designed for the tightly confined space of an airline row. The count of 30 began again.  

The woman with the knee brace started shouting at the flight attendants for the kit.  And for someone to call 911. “The kit,” she shouted at a flight attendant.  “Get the kit.” Nobody seemed to understand. “The defibrillator,” she yelled. “Get the defibrillator.” This was a classic cardiac arrest, so it seemed. The PA and the nurse had reacted as they instinctively knew how to do. The knee-brace woman followed their lead. A flight attendant ran forward and dashed back with a red bag.  He handed it over to another attendant who started to open it. The knee-brace woman grabbed it and finished unzipping it as she pulled out the red paddles to hand them over the seat and down to the PA and onto Mark. She knew seconds would count. Knee-brace woman called out to open Mark’s shirt and get the paddles on him. The defib machine was talking, warming up for action, telling us what to do. The woman with the knee brace kept moving ahead, step by step with the defib. It was ready.  “Clear?” she asked the PA and the nurse. “Okay, clear,” came the reply. Knee-brace woman made sure.  “Are we clear?” she asked again. She got a nod of affirmation from the PA who had to back into the corner of the seat back and the starboard wall, making herself even smaller to get clear of her patient. Then knee-brace woman pressed the button on the defib panel.  “Charge delivered,” said the machine. 30 was the count for more chest compressions. More breaths. Another shot from the defib. “He’s responding,” someone said tentatively. A light cheer went up from the passengers. They seemed to know this wasn’t over yet, but they were hopeful. These women were good. 

Chest compressions in action.

The three women never let up. Thirty more compressions. Another round of breaths passed through Mark’s lips and into his chest. His eyes fluttered, so an onlooker said. Now, the paramedics began to swarm down the aisle from up forward encircling Mark’s row. Their dark blue uniforms with red firefighter patches were my sigh of relief. A bottle of oxygen appeared. Someone fumbled with it. Couldn’t get it attached to a tube and mask. Another bottle of O2 was passed into the row. It was now a maelstrom of skilled first responders coming to the fire to help Mark stay alive.

The defibrillator arrived from a flight attendant.

I took some photos and turned back to the woman behind me still sobbing, still in shock. I told her Mark was going to be okay — and she stood taller, trying to see. A narrow wheelchair was rolled in and the medics got Mark onto it, strapping him in. His color had returned. I sensed he was going to make it, as did others. A collective sigh passed through the cabin. People cleared away as I helped gather up Mark’s things to send with the woman. She directed me. I could tell she was feeling stronger. A blue bag in the overhead bin turned bottom-side out. An iPad in Mark’s seat pocket. A black backpack. Her purse that needed to be zipped. We zipped it together, with a flight attendant’s help. The strong, steady hands of a professional made the difference. It was a small matter but an important one. The woman smiled at us. I looked at her as Mark was wheeled by. She smiled again weakly as another flight attendant guided her to the aft bulkhead hatch where Mark was being loaded onto a riser platform.

Mark was surrounded by guys in blue all focused on making sure they kept his heart beating. Those Chicago Fire Department guys were all solid and steady. They brought a calming air to the plane and it’s passengers. I’ve never seen such focus except for what I’d witnessed just minutes before when three women, all strangers, came together in an act of complete charity to help restart a man named Mark’s heart in row 21, seat d. They had done the unthinkable and the near impossible. They may never see one another again, but at that moment when they were needed, they kicked into action together to help a stranger. And for that, they’ll always be connected.

It was then I learned about another passenger who had blacked out. He was a teenage boy who had passed out while watching Mark and his caretakers in action. His seat mate, a young, red-haired woman with elephants on her skirt and a light-blue hooded sweatshirt looked up and gave me two thumbs up with a radiant smile. “It’s okay, he’s okay. We’ve got this one figured out,” she beamed. “No worries here.”

The red-headed woman with elephants on her dress who helped a tennagr passenger in his time of need. She was radiant.

After that, things were a blur. The knee-brace woman gave up her seat across the aisle from me so the teenager who had passed out could have a row to himself to lie flat until his color returned. She wasn’t through giving to others. The Captain, Brian as I later learned, called me to the front of the plane. He wanted to be absolutely sure the teenager was well enough to fly. I assured him he was. And he asked me again. And then a third time. I think he was as much making sure I was of sound mind and not in shock as he was trying his utmost to ensure another health event wouldn’t happen once we were airborne. He did, after all, have a job to do. Midway to Manchester, then on to Baltimore before he could relax. I give him tremendous credit. He knew there were medical professionals helping Mark, and he let that play out until the paramedics arrived. He then took further steps to ensure the safety of everyone on board before deciding to pull away from the gate and lift off with what I now knew for him was the precious cargo of good people’s lives.

But the woman who dug deep inside herself was the PA, Amy, as I learned was her name later on. She said she was a family practitioner from someplace near St. Louis, and she much preferred the calm and predictable to the emergency she had just faced — with what was to me a surprising ease and grace. But it hadn’t been easy for her. She’d had to push herself to act, but once she did, it all flowed. She was traveling with her daughter to look at colleges in the northeast. When I found out her daughter was a high school varsity ice hockey goal tender I knew this PA was made of some pretty solid mettle. It takes guts to watch pucks fly hungrily at your child. She jumped in as a leader at the very moment her unwavering leadership was needed.

And the woman with the knee brace. I saw her later in the Manchester baggage claim area hopping around on one foot carrying a metal crutch as she searched for her luggage. She had told me she was a flight attendant on a private jet, so she was fully trained in CPR. She helped pull off a miracle today.

And the nurse who backed away to let the PA take charge, then dove right back into action with chest compressions and life saving breaths. She knew how to work on a team. 

And, finally, the woman with the elephants on her dress who cared for yet another young passenger when he needed help. She made me feel her joy, and brought her infectious smile to my lips.

These women saved a man’s life today, and also helped a young man get back on his feet. We should celebrate their lives, too. Womanhood suddenly gives me hope for all humanity.

These wonderful women made me realize there is great good in all of us, and not for recognition or remuneration. Nor for any kind of self-satisfaction or self-centered need. They helped simply because they were there, and because they could. They helped two strangers because it’s what we’re supposed to do when we see others in need. What more can we ask of our heroes?

Getting ready for the flight to NH. After an already eventful morning on board.

I’ll try to get an update on Mark’s condition and publish a follow-up piece soon. The boy who passed out is fine. He just needed large quantities of food as any 19-year-old boy can attest. He’ll fly again. My son, my wife, and my mother-in-law had a wild ride to start their flight, but Captain Brian got us to our final destination of Manchester, NH without any more bumps — except a bit of turbulence to excite us over Vermont. It was almost as if we needed one final gut-wrenching reminder of how precious is life before we touched down.

I’m now back home in East Thetford, VT with my family thinking about the day’s events and how fortunate I was to be part of a special moment in time when a community of strangers bonded together to do the miraculous. Four talented and caring women plus a handful of flight attendants were there inside one plane, doing what they knew how to do together—all working hard as a team to keep one man’s heart beating as anonymous heroes about to take flight.


Dave Celone a/k/a Poetic Licence, writes for the dailyuv.com whenever he can. He lives in Vermont. To follow Dave’s posts, please Click Here, or follow this link: http://dailyuv.us11.list-manage.com/subscribe?u=3b0a3ea19ca8d7b499b2203de&id=8d286dabb7



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