“Is there a doctor on board?” The good, bad and ugly of in-flight illness

June 16th, 2010 in Asian travel by Sarah Lee 1
Put down the chopsticks and back away from the poison sushi

Tucking into fresh sushi purchased from Bangkok airport I had no idea of the grief it was soon to impart on my body.

Food poisoning is never pretty but at 39,000-ft on a 12-hour flight it’s really unpleasant! But everything in life is an experience and this taught me much.

I always like to buy sushi at Bangkok airport for the journey home – it’s like my final nod to those truly authentic Asian flavours. We’d just taken off on our EVA Air flight when I started eating the rainbow sushi.

About 15 minutes later, it started. My tummy rumbled and turned as the plane rose through the air.

I won’t share the gory details with you – it’s enough to say I was violently ill with dreadful stomach cramps and numerous trips to the toilet. Immediately I desired the comfort of my own bed, but would’ve settled on sitting comfortably in a reclining seat in premium economy, where I wouldn’t have to queue for the toilets.

There were actually many seats spare in premium (I sneaked in to avoid the economy toilets queue) and there were even two seats right next to the lavatories. Feeling as if I’d been hit by a truck and ashen-faced I begged a cabin crew member to be allowed sit in there in the hope I’d be able to sleep off my illness in a more relaxed position. After checking with her manager she said I could move at a cost of US$500 for the return upgrade (I was on my way home so clearly wouldn’t benefit from the return flight). I explained I wasn’t wanting the luxuries of premium economy – I was in no fit state to enjoy them – but was wasting my breath.

Minutes later I was sick. Knowing my ordeal wasn’t over, I found the same stewardess. As she couldn’t dish out any medicine without a doctor and I figured I wouldn’t get my ‘upgrade’ without one I agreed to her putting out a call for a doctor.

A part of me was mortified when I heard: “Is there a doctor or nurse on board? There’s a passenger having a medical emergency” (it wasn’t an emergency I was just ill! Or was it? Would I end up so dehydrated by my mile-high bodily expulsions that I’d shrivel up and die? Perhaps it was an emergency!). Still my embarrassment soon turned to desperation as I was gripped by a string of stomach cramps. As two stewardesses returned with a nurse kind enough to answer their call I was in a state. Luckily I was travelling in a press group and some of the journalists spoke up for me requesting I was moved to premium economy while the nurse took my blood pressure and asked all the necessary questions. She was wonderful and her touchingly sweet teenage daughter stroked my arm in a redundant effort to calm my stomach cramps.

Minutes later I was popping some unknown pills (I didn’t care what they were I just wanted something to put me out of my misery) and after being asked yet again, the cabin crew agreed to move me to a spare seat in premium economy. I covered up with three duvets – I was freezing – and tried to sleep. But I was right to sit next to the loo – I was in and out countless times making me wonder how a Ryanair passenger would cope with a similar situation.

During the flight I became aware of a number of things – the good, bad and ugly of being ill on a flight.

The Good

Many people were very kind to me and I was immensely grateful for their assistance. Firstly the nurse who assisted me and returned to check on me later when I was finally able to sleep.

Also my journo colleagues who negotiated with the cabin crew to get me moved and looked after me. And there’s Hannah, the PR from Hills Balfour, who sat with me for hours to make sure I was OK.

The crew were also sweet. Checking my temperature three times, seeing if they could bring me anything and one stewardess, Miko, told me she’d spent her three hour break worrying about me instead of sleeping!

The Bad

The crew were lovely, but as usual it’s politics that lets things down. I was only moved to premium economy due to vomiting, being seen by a nurse, given medication and because I was obviously in agony. What’s a person got to do to prove a point!?

The other bad thing? There really is no privacy when you’re ill at 39,000-feet. You feel hugely embarrassed as you race to the toilet and even through uncontrollable bodily ejections you despair for your fellow passengers having to put up with you.

The Ugly

Nothing about this situation is pretty, I certainly wasn’t, and my flight wasn’t a good one. But there was something even uglier than staring headlong into the plane’s toilet – some fellow passengers.

At one point a cabin crew member asked Hannah to return to her seat – I was well enough it seemed. When Hannah said I was still ill and she was only there to look after me we were told someone in Elite had complained at us sitting there – despite being informed that the captain had authorised it due to medical reasons. We wondered if they thought they might catch something then figured that if someone had died things would’ve been even worse for them. Hannah told her we were a press group travelling on an arranged trip with EVA.

I never pull the ‘do you know who I am’ card when travelling. There are many discounts, upgrades and offers you can access with a pompous press attitude, but I think it’s a pretty ugly thing to do. But Hannah was informing them of the facts and, given the circumstances, I was really pleased she did.

I’m thankfully on the mend now, but the experience has taught me important lessons about travelling, human nature and what I eat during a flight – needless to say my Bangkok sushi tradition is no more!

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