Emergency landing



No question: Being a father is work. But it’s nice work if you can get it.

Twenty-five years ago, on Aug. 4, 1992, I wasn’t convinced of the nice part. I was flying across country with our daughter, Susie, age 14 months. We were going to visit my parents in California. Susie was recovering from chicken pox and wasn’t happy with life.

I wasn’t so happy myself: the Vermont newspaper I worked for was in trouble. The owners’ investment in real estate had gone south and everyone was tense, sensing the ax was about to fall, which it did.

I had tried to get my head in the right place with calming Zen meditations on living in the present moment and the sound of one hand clapping. But it wasn’t taking.

Because she was under the age of 2, Susie could travel in my arms and did not need a ticket. It was a mixed blessing, as she was fussy and squirmy. But she finally fell asleep and I made the most of the present moment by pulling out my Tom Clancy novel and asking the flight attendant for a couple of cold beers. Ahhhhh!

The guy next to us, asked a couple of pleasant questions: How old is she? Does she have any words?

I answered that she tended to say “da-da” a lot, but I thought it was more of an all-purpose word, not a reference to me.

He nodded knowlingly. “All small children say ‘dada.’ It doesn’t mean anything special.”

After an hour, Susie started to wake up. She whimpered. She felt hot and damp, like a bath mat. I lifted her up and figured we’d walk the aisle for a spell.

I took a look at her and could not believe what I was seeing. Susie was having a grand mal seizure. I didn’t know that at the time, of course: the diagnosis came later. Her eyes were popping out of her head and one side of her mouth was being pulled down in a grotesque leer.

A 40-ish woman, observing all this, rose from her seat.

“Is there something wrong with that child?” she asked.

“Yeah,” I said, terrified, “I think she’s having some kind of fit.”

The woman took charge: “I’m a neonatal intensive care nurse. Let me help.”

Oh, definitely, I thought.

She carried Susie down to the first class galley where it was roomy and lay her down. We got her down to her diaper. She felt so hot. Susie had another seizure. I said a silent prayer: “Just don’t die, OK?” A flight attendant handed us an oxygen mask that covered half of Susie’s body. The flight attendant asked if there was anything she could do.

The nurse spun around. “Yes. Tell the pilot to land in a real big city with a real good hospital.”

Astonished, the flight attendant went through the door to the pilot. She came out a minute later.

“Denver OK?”

Denver was OK and we made an emergency landing within minutes. An ambulance was waiting on the tarmac and the two of us were bundled off the plane.

At the hospital, Susie was subjected to all kinds of tests to see if the problem was poison or encephalitis or what. They had to draw blood a couple of times and she was very opposed to this, fighting the doctors like a bobcat. I held her legs, a nurse held her shoulders and the doc approached with the needle. Which is when Susie tore free, sat up and pleaded with me. “Dada! Dada!”

(Note to self: tell the man on the plane his theory might not be 100 percent.)

Eventually, one and all agreed that she had had a febrile seizure — one brought on by a high fever. The fact that she was just getting over chicken pox sealed it.

They admitted her to the pediatric wing and, just to be safe, hooked her up to an IV. They taped her arm to a board so that she wouldn’t bend it. The fight was out of her by now.

There was a rocking chair in the unit. I held her in my arms, rocked, and started singing to her. Mostly lullabies. Sometime after midnight, she tried to do pat-a-cake, but the board that secured her left arm for the IV rendered it useless, like the flipper of a seal. She hauled up my left hand so she could play pat-a-cake … her right hand against my left.

I was beat, limp and very, very grateful. My daughter was OK and I was so happy to be her father. I’ve never gotten over that experience, which started with a flight I wasn’t looking forward to and ended, as she continued playing, in great peace. The new day dawned and I realized I was listening to the sound of one hand clapping.

Stephen Fay is managing editor of The Ellsworth American.

Stephen Fay

Stephen Fay

Managing Editor at The Ellsworth American
Stephen Fay, managing editor of The Ellsworth American since 1996, is a third-generation Californian. Starting out as a news reporter in 1974, he has been an editor since 1976, working in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Vermont before settling in Ellsworth with his wife and two daughters. [email protected]
Stephen Fay

Latest posts by Stephen Fay (see all)