Conversations on an Aeroplane

In those days there was a Greek national airline. It was originally a private airline owned by Onassis, and later was sold to the Greek state and run into the ground as any Greek state enterprise.

It was on one of the Boeing 707 ‘s that my mother collapsed. She suffered from Rheumatic Fever as a child, and had a leaky heart valve. The stress of travel and the heat of the stop for an hour in equatorial Nairobi sometimes pushed her heart into another rhythm, and made her unwell. On one flight she became unresponsive. The usual announcement went out in Greek first, then in English. My father knew there were some doctors on the plane, and was pacing up and down around my mother fighting for space with the fat old Olympic stewardesses.

Shorty after the English announcement a well dressed elderly doctor arrived, introduced himself and attended to my mother. First he took off his plain and worn sports jacket, handed it to my father to hold, and rolled up his sleeves. He felt her forehead with the back of his hand, the white pink of his palm facing my father, who was observing from the row in front. The he gently took her pulse. He paused, measuring the gap which varied between heartbeats. Sometimes less than a second, sometimes even three in a second and occasionally one every two or three seconds. He listened to her heart through her blouse with the stethoscope the stewardess proffered. He certainly was confident and looked like he knew what he was doing. He then proceeded to take her blood pressure. It was low, but not critical.

I have been in situations like that on aeroplanes and its not easy. What can you do in a small room in the sky when you have had a few whiskies and you do not have any of your team to consult? I always feel helpless in these call up situations. Sometimes I must look helpless, like the time I was struggling to get a drip up on a German lady who had had a heart attack the senior stewardess said very helpfully:

“Doctor, would you like me to announce for a nursing sister? They are usually better at putting up drips!”

My ego battered, I finally got the drip in and used the cockpit’s satellite phone to call my anaesthetist for help.

The kind doctor made space around my mother, cooled her down with a damp cloth and fanned her. He checked her pulse regularly. Eventually her colour returned, and she smiled back at him. My father was profusely grateful.

There was however no exchanging of cards. In the seventies, in the depth of Apartheid, there would be no need of a Black struggle doctor. He was out of place boarding the aeroplane in Johannesburg, would fit in in Nairobi but would stick out like a Fez in Athens.

My father shook his hand, bowed his head and thanked him.

“May God bless your hands.”

Years later my mother called me one evening, excited that she had found a picture of the doctor that had saved her. It was an obituary.

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