Crisis at 32,000 feet


Get your carrots off my bed!” mumbled my seat companion on the crowded 747. With a jolt, I woke to a day I would never forget—a day packed with terrible memories, a day set to change the lives of myself and my husband forever.

John’s garbled demand was not only strange but alarming, coming from my husband of 30 years who was normally calm, polite and soft-spoken. Although I was totally unaware of it, something serious had been unleashed and worse was to follow.

The previous evening, as we checked in at London’s Heathrow Airport, ending our holiday in Britain, there was no sign of trouble. In fact, John had joked about some of the horrible beds we’d suffered over the previous six weeks.

“You know,” he grinned, “I can’t wait to get home to our own great bed!”

However, once aboard, we found that we were in regular seats, even after specifically asking for one with extra legroom to allow for John’s 1.9-metre frame. But with no alternative available, he somehow squeezed himself into the seat. Things worsened when the two passengers in front reclined their seats, which further reduced his mobility. But John chose not to complain.

At 10 pm, when the cabin lights dimmed, we tried to get some sleep, knowing that our body clocks were about to be thrown into confusion again. As I awoke from my shallow slumber during the long night hours, I noticed John holding his head, which in retrospect, could have signalled a problem.

Later, dazzling cabin lights woke us and the aroma of hot coffee wafting from the galley alerted us to the beginning of a new day. I glanced at John. He had turned a ghastly yellow colour and was still mumbling.

We were due to land in Japan within the hour for a stopover, but watching John staring vacantly into space, I became concerned. It quickly escalated to alarm when I saw one side of his face drooping, expressionless. The word stroke! choked in my throat and my heart pounded.

John’s impossible gibberish further intensified the fear in my stomach and although I tried to keep calm, inside I wanted to scream. Just then a determined flight attendant decided to push John’s breakfast tray in front of him. Using frantic signs, I indicated that John had a problem, but the flight attendant dismissively replied, “Some passengers do wake up a bit confused.” Another flight attendant winked and made drinking gestures. “A bit too much of the golden stuff, aye?”

Under other circumstances, I would simply have viewed this as merely being offensive, since my husband is a nondrinker, but I had greater concerns to deal with. Desperate for help, I asked whether there was a doctor on board. Within seconds, Anne, the senior flight attendant, joined us from business class and attempted to engage John in a conversation. He looked blankly at her and babbled senselessly about carrots.

She quickly agreed that, yes, John indeed seemed to have suffered a stroke and she left but soon returned with an official-looking folder. It was an immense relief that someone was finally taking John’s situation seriously.

“How old are you, John?” the attendant asked, but he only babbled something incoherently.

A quick check of the plane’s flight indicator showed that we were currently flying over Beijing at 32,000 feet. With John so ill, my only thoughts were what a terrible place for such a thing to happen.

Sensing my concern, Anne said, “We have no doctor on board. However, I’ve been in touch with the Osaka airport doctor, who will see your husband as soon as we land.”

My relief was short-lived, as I found that talking to John was impossible. He didn’t seem to know where or even who he was. Getting any response was like wrestling with a very difficult four-year-old. The fact that John is head and shoulders taller than me, and behaving that way was frightening.

How will I cope in a foreign country, with him in this condition? Will he have to be hospitalised? If so, where would I stay?

Then the question of available money struck me, as we’d used our last travellers’ cheques to pay for the taxi ride in London. We had only enough money left for the taxi fare when we got off the plane back home.

When the plane finally landed, a wheelchair was waiting for John. I was greatly relieved when finally, after at first refusing, he climbed into it and sat clutching his crumpled hat. I had to deal with our carry-on bags and I was grateful for Kyaka, a very helpful young Japanese woman, who pushed his wheelchair.

However, I quickly found Kyaka knew only two speeds: stop and fast, and that attempting to keep up with her through the airport’s endless corridors and elevators was futile. Very soon, I felt like an exhausted, overweight wombat.

The Japanese doctor’s diagnosis, even allowing for the slightly broken English, was incredible. “Missus Fletten, I never see man with stroke before. So has no stroke! Perhaps better he sleep it off, unless you want crat-scran to waste more money?”

His reply frightened and discouraged me. How could any doctor, in such a position, not recognise a stroke? His dismissive manner was clearly an attempt to protect the airline from liability.

Leaving the clinic, I felt sick. Un­able to speak any Japanese and with absolutely no-one to turn to for support of any kind, I was totally lost. Alone.

For a few moments, I left John in his wheelchair with Kyaka and raced to a restroom. Protected in a cubicle, I wept as I earnestly prayed aloud. “Dear loving Father, You know every­thing. You know my frightening situation. If I’m ever going to get my dear husband home, You’ll have to help me. Please!”

Slowly, after drying my tears and knowing that I had placed myself completely in God’s care, I sensed peace and a wonderful calmness came over me. Exiting the facility, I found Anne, the friendly flight attendant, waiting for me.

“I have spoken with a doctor using the medical hotline in your travel insurance folder,” she said. “He agrees that it sounds like a stroke, but possibly only a minor one. However, he also warned that this is often followed by a more serious stroke that can prove fatal.”

I thanked her for her great help.

“By the way,” she added, “there’s a fee for the doctor just now. Also, for a CAT scan.”

I felt very, very short-changed, as my brief visit had achieved nothing and he had offered no help. Having no more cheques or cash, I was now very concerned.

Kyaka leapt to my aid. “You got credit card?” I nodded. “Please to follow, to ATM.”

“How much will I need?” I asked, bewildered by this latest setback.

She gazed at the ceiling and did a quick calculation on her fingers. “Bout ten tousand. Perhaps tirty tousand do better,” she responded in her best broken English, then sprinted away.

With no idea of the value of the Japanese yen, this sounded like a fortune. Standing in front of the ATM, I knew that if any cash appeared, it was going to be miracle money. My relief was beyond words when a neat pile of Japanese money slithered toward me.

“Thank you, Lord,” I whispered, recalling the words of Jeremiah: “Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know.”

I paid for the doctor’s consultation but chose not to go ahead with a CAT scan. Instead, I decided to try to make it home as quickly as possible. But in this I met yet another road-block. Trying to get on our flight, I was presented with a form. It was a mass of illegible small print, the gist of which was the message: “You no sign our paper, you no fly on our plane.”

I knew that in signing I was probably absolving the airline of all responsibility for John no matter what happened. But I had to get him home in familiar surroundings and with people he knew, and in particular Dr Jim, our own family doctor, so I signed.

And when we finally arrived home and saw Dr Jim, his diagnosis was straightforward: “Sit down, John. Looks like you’ve had a stroke!”

Sadly, John had to take early retirement from his employment, but as I reflect on the incident, I am greatly encouraged. I saw God’s hand at work in providing caring helpers just when I needed them. I experienced what I believe was a miracle at the ATM and this thought comes to me still: while one may occupy a pew in church every week, joining in the worship, it is only when trouble strikes from nowhere that we find out just how close we are to our heavenly Father. And how close He is to us.

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