TV comedian/writer/actor Larry David fell flat Nov. 4 on “Saturday Night Live” when he joked about how tough it would be to pick up women at Nazi concentration camps. The monologue failed because it was offensive without being funny.
David hits the right balance of offensiveness and humor on his own show, “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” and that next night I was watching as Ed Begley Jr. played a self-involved physician seated next to David on a plane.
When a fellow passenger becomes ill, the call goes out for any medical professional on board. Begley’s character refuses to heed the call, saying: “You ever been part of an emergency landing? Is that what you want, Larry, to spend the night in Lubbock, Texas, at a Days Inn with a $15 voucher from Cinnabon? Think about it.”
I got to think about it three days later, Wednesday, Nov. 8, when a real call for medical help came over the PA system 30 minutes into a flight to Los Angeles.
A doctor immediately raised his hand, and a fascinating medical drama proceeded four rows ahead of me. For two hours, he chewed gum while providing care with just a stethoscope and decades of experience. A woman wearing a Michigan State Medicine shirt eventually relieved him.
The flight crew provided continual assistance. One flight attendant donned a headset so she could communicate directly with a medical consultant on the ground. She reported the patient’s vital signs and the doctor’s observations and brought back any suggestions from below.
I could hear occasional coughing fits, but the crew provided as much HIPAA-compliant privacy as possible. We fellow passengers never were told his symptoms; presumably, because we weren’t quarantined or advised to see doctors ourselves, it was nothing contagious.
Just as Begley’s character on “Curb” warned, we eventually made a special landing in Texas — El Paso, not Lubbock. As the female flight attendant said several times, it was the same treatment any of us would have gotten in the similar circumstances: One person’s life was worth 175 people’s slight inconvenience.
As far as I could tell, no one complained about our hour-plus stopover at El Paso International Airport, where EMTs came aboard, checked out the ill young man (he appeared to be in his 20s) and wheeled him away.
The flight attendant who had provided such crucial, calm assistance to the medical professionals then teared up as she finally let the emotions of the possibly lifesaving situation overtake her.
I wish I could name her and the other members of the flight crew, as well as the passengers who heeded the call to provide medical care, but Southwest Airlines played the corporate Grinch, refusing to provide any information beyond a bland statement that did little more than confirm that it wasn’t all a dream. We did, in fact, make an unscheduled stop in El Paso for an undisclosed medical emergency.
No names, no details on what was wrong with the passenger, no information on his condition, no statistics on how often such emergency diversions occur, not even appreciation for the way everyone responded.
To some extent, no one deserves appreciation. The flight crew was just doing its job. The passenger volunteers were fulfilling their medical oaths. The rest of us were just along for the ride.
But in an era of self-importance, self-interest and selfishness, it was nice to see that a group of Americans up in the clouds could collectively recognize that some things are more important than an on-time arrival, even if we didn’t get Cinnabon vouchers.