It's 7 a.m. on a Thursday morning and we were onboard a plane headed south along with a hundred other people, many of whom were already drinking. The woman in the window seat offered a preemptory declaration: "I'd like to apologize in advance," she said loudly through an over-lipsticked mouth. "We're a noisy bunch -- we're all going to a wedding. There are 30 of us on this one plane! It's a party!" Cheers and bellows rose from all around us.
"This is the worst case scenario," I whispered to my husband. He flipped up his iPad and began to read. I stared at the beverage cart, willing it closer. Steam curled above the metal coffee carafe; my body ached for caffeine.
The flight attendant delivered six cans of Bud Lite to the two men across the aisle from me before pouring the coffee. "This will save her another trip," one guy nodded at me with the earnest face of a teen brewing a hair-brained idea. His face was already red, and we hadn't yet seen the sun. He emptied a can into his gullet.
Hours passed. I listened to an audiobook, trying to drown out the whooping of alcohol-loosened celebrants. And then, something in the air changed. The rhythms of voices dissipated. The plane seemed to tighten around us. I pulled out my ear-buds as a flight attendant smashed into my elbow. "Clear the aisle," someone yelled.
I turned, and saw it: a torso slumped over the armrest, a head and one arm dangled into the aisle. The hair was dripping wet, as if it'd been dunked in a bucket of water. Loose skin draped the skull like soft wax. Oh my God, I thought. He's dead.
An attendant ran forward with an oxygen tank.
The loudspeaker sounded: "If there is a doctor on board please press your call button." Two call buttons chimed simultaneously. Bodies filled the aisle between me and the fallen man. An IV was started. A woman in a mini-dress (the doctor?) injected something into the IV bag while another passenger rubbed her fist on his chest. "Sir? Can you hear me? Nod your head if you can hear me."
A woman passenger began to cry. The wedding partiers whispered and worried; we twisted in our seats, seeking comfort from each other. Our voices were low. "What happened?"
"Did he have a seizure?"
"Was it a heart attack?"
"I saw it happen," a bald man said, racing from the forward cabin. He was young, about 30. "I was coming from the bathroom and I saw him collapse in his seat." He stood in the aisle right next to me, firing questions like commands. "What's his pulse rate?" "Can you get him to respond to pain?" He issued orders in a confident voice: "Tell him he's going to be fine," he said. He looked at me and shrugged. "Can't hurt," he said.
Passengers were relocated. An older woman in a warm-up suit hauled herself over the seatback with the speed of a gymnast, making room for the defibrillator case. The man seated across from me was asked to hold the oxygen tank on his lap. He clenched it to his chest like a life preserver; his biceps bulged with tension. The attendant leaned over him. "You don't have to grip it quite so tightly," she suggested. "You don't want to impinge the tube." She patted his arms, urging them loose. "I have never been this nervous," he said to me, "and I was in the military!"
"We need to get him to a hospital," the bald man commanded the flight attendant. "We need to land the plane."
Land the plane?
The attendant near me marked notes on the back of an envelope. As the source of updates for the pilots, she'd been racing back and forth, conveying information.
The lipsticked woman in the window seat pushed away her half-finished cocktail and called out to the attendant, "Tell the wife we're praying for her." A man held out a quilted winter coat, offering it as a blanket. One of the Bud Lite guzzlers leaned into the aisle and snapped a photo with his phone. If he saw me scowling, he didn't show it.
The bald man continued in a louder voice. "He's non-responsive. He has shallow breath sounds and... what's his blood pressure?" He looked over the shoulder of the flight attendant, reading the notes. "We need to put the plane down," he said. "Now."
A ripple began to form in the belly of the plane, moving outward like a wake. "Put the plane down," whispered voices worried. The vocals rose from rumbles to near screeches while close to a hundred heads leaned toward foggy windows. Put the plane down?
From the rear of the cabin, a voice wailed: "Where?"
We flipped open our inflight magazines, all of us, and accessed the route map as if we could help.
And then, a surprise. "He's perking up," someone said. I turned to see for myself. The man sat upright, the oxygen mask still strapped to his colorless face. His eyes were open. "He's going to make it."
We exhaled as a group, one long sigh, while the cabin was reorganized for an emergency landing. The bald man turned and winked at me.
"It's good to have a doctor on board," I said.
"Oh, I'm not a doctor," he said, returning to his seat.
We applauded upon landing, and then applauded again as we disembarked. We shook hands at the baggage claim like old friends and went our separate ways.
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