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Life and the Skies: Rapid Changes Ahead

In both life and aviation, circumstances can swiftly take a turn.

Traveling towards the west at FL 430, with just over an hour remaining until our destination, we engage in a conversation about our groundspeed, hovering around 400 knots, the headwinds, and the persistent glare of the sun in our eyes despite our continuous adjustments to the sun visors.

Out of nowhere, a sudden and impactful event occurs!

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In a state of shock, it’s hard to discern the nature of the incident, but it is evidently catastrophic. The master warning blares, accompanied by flashing lights amidst the condensation and debris in the air. A sudden and disastrous decompression.

Silently, we follow the memory procedures. Don oxygen masks, switch to microphone oxygen masks. Establish communication, proceed to the emergency descent checklist. Reduce throttle, deploy speed brakes, initiate a 15-degree nose-down attitude. If the aircraft seems intact, accelerate to MMO. Check passenger oxygen. Refer to the checklist.

This was not a figment of imagination, nor was it reality, yet it closely resembled the events of the summer. The issue did not lie with the aircraft—it was within me.

Following a leisurely hike with my wife, Cathy, son, and his family in the Ledges of New Hampshire, we returned to the cottage, bid farewell to the parents heading back to Boston, and enjoyed a meal. We purchased chicken from a nearby farm in Vermont. The chicken had been raised with care; free from hormones, fed the best diet, and had ample space to roam. Cathy prepared a sheet pan chicken dinner.

Anticipation filled me for the upcoming week. The grandchildren were delightful, and my flying companion, Bill Alpert, had extended an invitation to co-pilot a Cessna Citation CJ2+ from Nantucket, Massachusetts, to Tampa, Florida, by the week’s end. By then, our Beechcraft P-Baron should have completed its annual inspection in Florida, allowing me to fly it back to New Hampshire. What an exciting prospect.

Approximately an hour later, another sudden event!

Violent bouts of vomiting and other unpleasant gastrointestinal symptoms ensued in a bewildering manner. While we’ve all experienced stomach issues at some point, this was different. Cathy diligently tended to changing sheets and attending to my needs, while the children slept, unaware.

By morning, I had fainted twice, once on the bathroom floor and once beside the bed. The situation was chaotic. By late afternoon, with no signs of improvement, having lost a significant amount of fluids, Cathy contacted the fire department. The responders had specialized equipment for such scenarios, assisting me down a flight of stairs as I drifted in and out of consciousness. “Keep your hands in,” I faintly heard them say. En route to the hospital, an IV was initiated. We arrived at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center just as the shift changed at 7 p.m.. Another routine day for my rescuers.

An initial evaluation revealed dangerously low levels of red blood cells for oxygen transport and white blood cells for infection defense. While discussions about a B12 deficiency diagnosis took place, I was largely unaware due to my condition. As my awareness slowly returned, various consulting physicians deliberated on more serious diagnoses. Stabilized, I was discharged on the fifth day.

Over the following month, the diagnosis became evident: acute myeloid leukemia. A daunting reality. The five-year survival rate for individuals over 20 stands at 28 percent. Moreover, these statistics are based on younger patients. To compound matters, the only known remedy for my subtype is a bone marrow transplant. Avoid searching for details online. A month-long hospital stay is just the beginning, with the treatment itself carrying a 25 percent mortality risk, as relayed to me.

How does this relate to flying airplanes?

Firstly, it serves as a stark reminder of how swiftly circumstances can shift from anticipation to a struggle for survival. During my early days as a surgeon, encounters in the emergency room illustrated this unpredictability, akin to the motorcyclist who embarked on his journey with enthusiasm only to end up with a severe spinal injury, immobile in a hospital bed. Motorcycles are often dubbed “donor cycles” in medical settings.

Secondly, akin to placing trust in the expertise of the flight crew when boarding an aircraft, entrusting your life to individuals you’ve just met underscores the significance of stringent selection processes, expert training, meticulous maintenance, and the mental well-being of those in control. The same applies to these new physicians. While they exude confidence, it wasn’t long ago that I was in their shoes.

Thirdly, despite professional advancements from ground school to achieving captaincy on a Boeing 787, such accomplishments offer little solace in times of crisis. Similar to career progression dictated by hire dates and seniority, you become a mere passenger on a river, unable to steer. Your fate is intertwined with the decisions of your medical team, the diagnosis, and the American healthcare system.

Lastly, the unwavering support and care from friends and family surpass expectations. My circle of male friends—from doctors, lawyers, and journalists to pilots, IT experts, former NFL players, and mechanics—have rallied with invaluable support and uplifting gestures. Who would have guessed that Graeter’s Ice Cream from Cincinnati is unparalleled? My freezer door strains under the weight of 10 one-pint containers.

I remain optimistic that aviation motifs will continue to thread through this “journey.” I aim to veer away from sentimentality and offer a candid portrayal of the experience. Such insights may prove beneficial in the future.

Meanwhile, the Baron is listed for sale.

This article was originally featured in the January-February 2024/Issue 945 of FLYING’s print edition.