The call came out over the loudspeaker. “If there’s a physician on the plane, can you please press your call button?”
My dad put down his book and pressed the button. The flight attendant came over. “Are you a doctor?” she asked.
“I am,” he said. She told him he was needed in the front, and he followed her up there.
My dad was en route to Texas for a week-long break. He was going to play golf with his brother and his friends. He would also get to see our extended family. He’d spent the past two months caring for my kids without so much as a glimpse at a golf course or another Clark family member. It was time for a break.
But the break wasn’t going to start yet, apparently. At the front of the plane was a man who was unconscious in the bathroom. Another doctor – a cosmetic surgeon whose specialty was not this sort of thing – stood nearby. My dad felt the man’s pulse and pulled him out of the bathroom and started assessing what was wrong.
“Do we need to divert the plane?” the flight attendant nervously asked.
“He’s breathing,” my dad said, “but I need a blood pressure cuff. Get that. Don’t divert the plane. Let’s just see how he’s doing.”
The man was young and my dad ended up being the doctor who worked on him, with the cosmetic surgeon as a back-up. The patient eventually came to, and my dad managed to get him to answer some questions about his health. He gave him some juice and put him in a variety of positions to get his blood pressure up.
“Do we need to divert the plane?” the flight attendant asked again.
“No,” my dad said. “He’s getting better.”
The man eventually stabilized and they got him to the back of the plane, where he laid down. My dad continued to help him throughout the three hour flight. Eventually, the flight attendants came over and wanted to know my dad’s name and address and other identifying information for their report.
“Well,” my dad said, “I am from Oregon, but now I live in DC for nine months of the year. My son-in-law died and I’m helping my daughter raise her three kids. So I’m not sure which address you want me to put.”
Of course, the flight attendants couldn’t believe what they were hearing. “Oh my God,” one of them said, “that’s so sad! You are amazing for doing that for your daughter.”
“I’m glad to do it,” my dad said simply.
At the end of the flight my dad returned to his seat. People around him had heard the plane was almost diverted and they thanked my dad for everything he did. “It’s no big deal,” he said.
Across the aisle, another passenger leaned over and asked my dad, “what type of doctor are you?”
“I’m a retired internist,” my dad said.
“Well,” said the other man, “I’m a retired gastroenterologist. I did not want to push that button so I was glad you did.”
Eight days later, my father sat at my kitchen counter and told me this story. “Dad!” I said, “I can’t believe you didn’t tell me this story before now! You saved that entire plane!”
“It wasn’t anything,” he said, and started doing the dishes.
“Yes it was!” I argued. “I hope they at least gave you a free plane ticket or something.”
“They offered me a drink,” he said. “But I don’t drink on planes.”
He didn’t say much else and went back to loading the dishwasher. Tommy arrived right then and whined. “Okay, Tommy, let’s go take a bath!” my dad said, and took him upstairs.
I finished cleaning up the kitchen. I could hear them upstairs. Tommy was laughing. I was relieved because for the first time in eight days, I didn’t have to give him a bath.
Of course, I admire my dad. I admire what he has done in his life and I admire what he’s done every day since Shawn died. But as I stood there, I started to really think about his choices.
He didn’t have to push the button on the plane. He could have been like the other doctor and instead put on his headphones and ignored the call.
But he didn’t.
And when Shawn died, he could have visited only periodically. He didn’t have to stay and give up his retirement to wash tiny toes in the bathtub. He could have decided to play a lot more golf and read a lot more books and make a lot fewer chocolate chip cookies.
But he didn’t.
Instead, he pushed the button.