Friday, 5 June 2009

Where did I leave that body?

A reader left a comment earlier this week that got me thinking...

i just got back from a jo-burg flight too. when on the flight they asked for a doctor. NO one stood up. so then they asked for a nurse. NO One stood up. eventually i detached the baby from the nipple and handed it to a priest sitting next to me and went off to see a VERY dead body in the galley at the back of the plane. THANKFULLY an orthopaedic surgeon also was there so i returned to my screaming baby and continued to suckle. PLEASE ADVISE ME NOW: what happens to dead bodies on planes. how do you keep it flat? is there a special storage space or is keeping is flat not a problem. we always try and keep them flat in hospital. maybe you just ask someone to move out of business class? maybe the priest would have been happy to sit next to it? i was scared hey.....imagine if i had had to do mouth to mouth or something

I did my actual 'Flight Medical Assistant' course at the Jo'burg gen in 1987 and was deployed on
the (then) 'Flight for Life' helicopter service as the Paediatric Flight nurse.

I had,prior to that,-in the early 1980's-,worked for DeVries Ambulance in a role that included that of a fixed-wing flight nurse.This was a lot of fun and included flying in a Lear jet...whee!!

As the Paeds nurse,most of the calls I flew on were inter-hospital transfers of really very ill newborn babies.These were 'nice' calls,where basically the helo took experience and expertise and equipment to a remote hospital,often resuscitated a moribund baby and then took them to a centre of excellence for definitive intensive care.

That all changed for me on Saturday 30 July 1988. fact the ANC later took responsibility for the incident, - (and three "cadres" appeared before the TRC)-,
detonated a bomb in the Wimpy in Benoni.
Apparently it was a few yards from the Security Police office and so was considered to be a 'legitimate' target;additionally,that day was the 67th anniversary of the SA Communist Party.


It killed one person and injured a further 60 people,mostly black South Africans,including a number of children,one of whom lost a leg.I remember flying in that Saturday to extract her.
The (then) Boksburg Benoni Hospital had a bizarre and really tight LZ,surrounded by trees...because-as I remember it-the Hospital secretary didn't really want a helicopter pad and didn't want to spoil his view either

Anyway...basically the pilot had to locate the LZ...stop...hover...and set the helo straight down.Landing wasn't too bad in was the takeoff that turned us all into Christians!!

I flew a lot more trauma calls after that!!

This is all part of a long explanation of why...when the dreaded call goes out at 30,000 feet and invariably at 0200...I am always happy to lend a hand.And to be honest,its always been very lucrative...and as yet...touch one has died on me.

In the past five years I have responded to perhaps eight calls for medical help...and have thus far received some 250,000 air miles that have directly funded three free transatlantic flights;have scored a £50 duty free voucher that got me my noise-cancelling headphones (sweet!!) ;got to sit at the bar and chat with the rich and famous;and of course have been given several bottles of Moet and wine.
I've also scored any number of First Class sleep suits and amenity kits...just love that Kiehl lip balm...(and they make great presents for the kids in your life); and the Xmas before last,flying back from Jo'burg on 23 December, I got upgraded because the Purser remembered me from helping an old lady,- (who was scared because she was 76 and had never flown before...and who had indigestion...well....I hope it was indigestion...anyway she responded to the alka seltzer I gave her and settled down whilst I her held her hand, and we didn't need to return to Boston...big relief)-,on a previous flight with her.

In truth there is little that you can do unless you have some basic kit and the willingness to make an idiot of yourself,although more mature readers might recall the cardio-thoraic surgeon in 1976,on a flight from Hong Kong,who inserted a makeshift underwater drain into a patient who had had a spontaneous pneumothroax with tracheal shift.

Mainly its about reassuring the passenger and providing some moral support to the crew.
I understand that bodies are placed in the toilets ; in the bunks in the crew rest area in the tail:
and that some are merely left in their seats and covered with a blanket. BA apparently have about ten deaths a year out of some 36 million passengers!!

Singapore Airlines apparently has a special corpse stowage area!!

But sometimes it all just goes wrong:-

A BRITISH Airways passenger travelling first class has described how he woke up on a long-haul flight to find that cabin crew had placed a corpse in his row.

The body of a woman in her seventies, who died after the plane left Delhi for Heathrow, was carried by cabin staff from economy to first class, where there was more space.
Her body was propped up in a seat, using pillows.The woman’s daughter spent the rest of the journey wailing in grief.

Trinder was catching up on sleep when he was woken by a commotion and opened his eyes to see staff manoeuvring the body into a seat.
“I didn’t have a clue what was going on. The stewards just plonked the body down without saying a thing. I remember looking at this frail, sparrow-like woman and thinking she was very ill,” said Trinder.
“She kept slipping under the seat belt and moving about with the motion of the plane. When I asked what was going on I was shocked to hear she was dead.”

More Moet anyone?


  1. god that is absolutely hilarious!!!! have you ever flown emirates to india from dubai? women keep going into labour. i bet you are a midwife as well. how can you stand working the uk: doesnt it drive you up the wall?

  2. In a previous life, I worked in insurance, so you can imagine that this sentence
    "inserted a makeshift underwater drain into a patient who had had a spontaneous pneumothroax with tracheal shift"
    had me wondering whether any surgeon would attempt a similar procedure these days, or spend ages hemming and hawing over possible lawsuits. Litigation, I fear, is killing people - quite literally!!

    Personally, I'd like to think that if I were on a flight and required invasive treatment like this, someone would be brave enough to do it. But then I live in Hope ...