CHILD OF THE SUN: Northwest Flight 72 D

He was blue from lack of oxygen when I got him an hour earlier. He must have had the cardiac arrest in his seat a couple of minutes before his seatmate noticed it. He was traveling alone.

 Northwest Flight 72 flying last Saturday morning from Manila to Nagoya then on to Detroit, had left promptly at 7 o'clock. It entered an unexpected area of turbulence an hour after take off. Everyone was advised to keep to his seat. It was a bit terrifying, even for an old traveler like me. There was nothing out the window except thick dark clouds and the plane tossed and twitched for an unusually long time.

Then came a call for a doctor over the PA. It sounded very urgent. Being retired, I waited until some younger doctor responded because I knew that flights to and from the USA usually carried Filipino doctors going and coming. But no one stood up in the bouncing plane and the voice at the PA was getting more and more frantic. So I stood wobbly in the aisle and made my way to the other corridor where the emergency was.

The man looked quite dead in his seat. The stewards laid him out on the floor and I noticed that the pupils of his eyes were already midway dilated. But I gave cardiac massage a try on the very narrow corridor floor with a stewardess trying unsuccessfully to do the ventilation with an ambu bag. I was grateful to a Filipina nurse who competently took over her job.

I was about to give up after a few minutes of the procedure because his heart was not responding. But I noticed that his pupils were beginning to react to light stimuli. So I persisted. Since Nagoya was still three hours away, the captain inquired if I was advising turning the plane around after an hour of flight.

I said yes. There was hope, if we could get him to a hospital fast.

After more than fifteen minutes of cardiac massage, I felt like I was going to have a heart attack myself until another Filipino nurse, a male, suggested that he spell me for the massage. That probably saved my life, too. Thereafter, a phalanx of able-bodied males alternated for the job, including yet another Filipino male nurse.

Both male nurses busied themselves with attaching IV fluids on each arm while I assisted the female nurse with the breathing. The mask didn't quite fit and the patient was rather corpulent with a short thick neck, which made efficient ambu bagging difficult, especially in such a confined space. But we were very happy with his pupillary response, even if his heart refused to cooperate. We decided to continue the CPR until we could turn him over to the 911 at the airport. Finally, we were able to elicit a faint, irregular heartbeat. Ineffective, but still better than nothing.

The pilot very gently landed the plane in NAIA, but it took what felt like forever for the medical team to come aboard in spite of the fact that we had already radioed for them an hour ahead of time. It took even more time and a lot of walkie-talkieing and finally frantic shouting from the open plane door to an errant ambulance out there somewhere on the tarmac that somehow unbelievably could not find its way to the plane, before they could get a stretcher. The patient had again turned blue for the waiting. It took 30 MINUTES for them to finally get the patient off the THE plane. The passengers began to call them the 91-ZERO team. The keystone kops of the medical profession.

But as we were getting ready to take off again, the NAIA ground personnel noticed that the reversers of one of our plane's engines were out of line. So we were advised to wait for the maintenance crew to repair them. It took all of three hours of waiting inside the plane on the tarmac before we could take off. In the meantime, I was told by the plane crew that they received information that the patient expired in the hospital.

The very idea that he expired shortly in a hospital even as we kept him alive for an hour on the plane with barely any equipment but muscles and an ill-fitting ambu bag, pissed me off. But I really did not know the underlying cause of the cardiac arrest, anyway, so I kept my peace.

For my efforts, an appreciative chief steward upgraded me from coach to first class! The first time I had the chance to climb the stairs of a 747 to that sacred place reserved for the rich.

When we finally left NAIA again at two pm, lantang gulay na ang lahat sa eroplano. I had already watched two movies on my personal entertainment module.

We arrived in Nagoya at about seven thirty in the evening when we were supposed to arrive at 1130 in the morning that day. We were scheduled to leave at 830 pm but it was postponed again because the Japanese maintenance crew was still tinkering with the same engine and could not repair the darned thing. They postponed the trip hourly and successfully increased by degrees, the level of stress, anxiety and frustration among the waiting passengers. Finally at midnight they decided to provide hotel accommodation to the physically drained travelers for what remained of the night. All of about 250 of us.

We were sent by groups of four per taxi to a hotel in Nagoya, 30 minutes away. But first, we had to line up for the hotel assignments. Then line up for the Japanese customs and immigration processing, then line up again for the taxis. Very slowly, each time. Into the hoary matutinal hours. But the Filipinos took everything very lightly, cracking jokes at every moment, bursting into waves of laughter at the tenacious bureaucracy of the harried Japanese staff, at their discomfiture, because they could not understand half of the English that was spoken and the Filipinos, too, could not understand half of the English the Japanese spoke. Soon, the Whites joined the laughter, too, because it was infectious in the empty airport's echoing early morning coldness.

The Filipinos all began to know each other, introducing themselves, telling where they came from and where they were now, showing pictures from their wallets and calling each other gradually by nicknames. They were all of one mind that the Japanese actually gave up his life for us. For in a way, his condition made it possible for the ground crew in NAIA to notice the problem with the airplane. Prayers for his soul were offered.

I came to know a refreshing young Filipino couple who lived in New Jersey who stuck to me and we became very fast friends, waiting for each other and informing each other of developments; information being given to us in patches and groups. We got to our hotel at 2 a.m. and it took a long time for me to sleep because I ached all over from the cardiac massage.

The hotel was a model of Japanese cleanliness and superb use of small space. We had breakfast at 8 a.m. at the very clean hotel lobby. The food was typical Japanese and the Filipinos did not relish pickled plums and nori salad in the morning so they stuck to scrambled eggs and coffee. I wanted to make some important calls but our room telephones were not allowed to work, and I could not decipher the directions on the use of public phones.

We left Nagoya at 1130 a.m. on Sunday. My upgrade was not carried to the next flight. Pity. But the entire coach class was now aglow with a warm friendliness; the Filipinos had already made fast friends with each other and their seatmates as well. I got to know my seatmate too,  Brian, a very tall, friendly American who told me he was in airplane maintenance but was laid off his job since three years ago.

We landed in Detroit at about the same time we left Nagoya. On the same day. We had to scramble to reestablish our missed connecting flights. And as we individually hurried on to different pre-departure gates, the travelers, no matter how weary, were sorry they were parting with new and dear friends, brought close by death and shared difficulties of travel, on Northwest flight 72 D. (The airline added the D to our flight number to distinguish us from the regular run.)

D must have stood for Delayed.

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Ting — Dr. Jose M. Tiongco — is a graduate of the UP College of Medicine Class 1971 and is chief executive officer of the Medical Mission Group Hospitals and Health Services Cooperative-Philippines Federation. He wrote about the early years of the cooperative hospitals and cooperative health fund in the book, "Child of the Sun Returning." Tiongco is now in the United States to talk to a group of alumni of the UP College of Medicine interested in a project to develop a vaccine against dengue with the UP College of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology. Subsequent projects will have to do with vaccines against intestinal parasites prevalent in the majority of Filipino Children) 

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