There has been plenty of heat on United Airlines over the last year from various incidents resulting in negative headlines, prompting even their own CEO to acknowledge their mistakes. But I would like to take a moment to praise some of their employees, based on my personal experience from this last weekend.
Yes, I want to praise United’s customer service, because on United flight UA91 early Saturday morning from Israel to Newark, I saw their inflight staff show true professionalism and concern for the life of a customer. It’s easy to point out all the problems we see in life, but it’s much rarer to acknowledge the good aspects of human nature when they appear. So I would like to take a second and applaud a job well done by some unsung heroes, who helped when a friend's life was in danger.
(I’m NOT being paid to say this. I am simply relating what I watched from two feet away out of appreciation.)
Over the previous 10 days, I was visiting Biblical sites in Israel with some friends from a local seminary. Our group consisted of people from all walks of life, including doctors, nurses, accountants, teachers, photographers, executives, retirees, and others. On the flight back to the US on Saturday morning, one of our travel companions had a serious medical event. (Let’s call him “Mark” just for privacy sake.) Mark has a pacemaker and suffered a stroke while in the airplane bathroom over the Atlantic Ocean about 5 ½ hours out from New York City. One of our group mates was a nurse and recognized his slumping arm, weak grip strength, and slurred speech as a possible sign of a stroke. She immediately told flight staff.
The flight attendants did everything possible to help once they were informed of the situation. I sat in the seat immediately behind Mark, so I observed everything as it unfolded. Several doctors onboard were found to attend to him, and a hospitalist who was a friend of the patient was chosen to take the lead. One flight attendant in particular named Jason Duarte stayed with the patient from the onset of the problem until the moment the EMT’s arrived on the ground, assisting in any way possible.
The flight staff brought out all available onboard medical supplies including oxygen tanks, an oximeter, a sphygmomanometer, and other items for use by the nurse and physicians. Communication between flight attendants, pilots, and ground control went back and forth with constant updates on Mark's status, spearheaded by Mr. Duarte for over 4 hours.
Needless to say, diagnosing medical emergencies at 35,000 ft. is tricky at best. Even if you know there’s a stroke, how do you treat it? Is the stroke resulting from a blood clot or a bleed in the brain? The treatments for each are polar opposites, and if you treat wrongly, you could make the problem worse. And unfortunately, commercial airplanes don’t have a 4,000 lbs. CT Scanner pre-installed to diagnose the problem. All the medical experts could do was manage the situation until they could get Mark to a hospital on the ground.
The other flight attendants worked around the incident to care for the rest of the passengers as well as they could, given the obvious impediment. Most other passengers were understanding.
At the professional opinion of both the nurse and physicians, the pilots diverted their landing to the nearest location which was in Bangor, Maine, where EMTs escorted Mark to a local stroke center for care. United had contacted the local hospital and briefed them before arrival so that everything was ready. Reports are Mark is doing well and should make a full recovery.
After Mark’s removal for treatment, the plane was refueled and continued on to Newark. United scrambled to accommodate passengers, such as our group of 27, who missed connecting flights due to the medical delay. We were put on the next available flight and made it home just in time for the ice storm hitting Illinois in late March.
In the aftermath, representatives from United contacted the lead for our travel group twice to inquire about Mark’s condition and arrange his travel home, once he’s released from the hospital.
Despite the negative reputation United has developed recently, the one infuriating event in this whole situation didn’t come from anyone at United; it came from a passenger sitting immediately behind me. Upon hearing over the loudspeaker about the diversion to Maine, this man traveling from Tel Aviv for his vacation in Florida whined bitterly at his reduced time on the beach. He lacked even the slightest concern for the health and survival of another human being, since he was being inconvenienced. I wonder if he would feel the same if he was fighting for his life hours from the nearest hospital.
Otherwise, the whole event was a display of professionalism and empathy by the medical professionals, the plane’s crew, and most of the other passengers. So I would like to thank the staff on UA91 for placing a man’s life over arrival times or convenience. They were the best possible representatives their company could ask for, and United should be proud of them. And obviously, thanks to the Lord who ultimately took care of everything!