Flying Solo

Another day ends


A joyous cry erupts from business class.

Yep that’s me in 2 C.

I’m one of those people who cheers when a waiter in a posh restaurant drops a whole tray of glasses. One who laughs out loud when their wife walks into the closed glass patio door.

I’m not saying that’s an admirable or desirable trait, I’m just saying that’s who I am.

I’m sat at the front of the plane, journeying East at the behest of The Organ and Tissue Authority. Unbeknownst to most, Government policy states that I am eligible to relax at the posh end of the 737, annoying the the politicians and the diplomats.

I often raged about wasteful federal policies, but not this one. Funny eh?

I always wore my seatbelt too. Proudly unconventional, but not stupid.

I had a G, T and lime in my right hand, that’s how you know that you’re in business on an Australian domestic flight. The proletariat get a slab of lemon, a plastic cup and a can. I had vowed not to drink, as it was going to be a long 48 hours of endless meetings.

Just the one eh?

One instant, the ice cubes the Gordon’s and the Angostura bitter stained tonic are mixing amicably in the cut glass tumbler and the next, they are hovering above the glass, an 80-proof crystal chandelier.

The stomach-churning leap into the void lasts a few seconds. Next, a shattering crash back into the waves of turbulence that we had launched from.

There was a brief silence in the cabin, a jangle of falling cutlery and the tumult of escaping hand luggage from overhead lockers, and then the murmurings of fright and laughter. Clearly I wasn’t the only one whose frontal lobes thrived in that moment of energy and uncertainty.

“My fucking leg is broken,” screamed a voice from behind me.

Oh bollox!

The gin, tonic, fruit and ice reunite with such velocity that the glass tumbler is cracked, or had I reflexly grippled my tipple as we flew earthwards.

I know what happens next and mouth the countdown.


“Ladies and Gentlemen, is there a doctor onboard?”

“There we go.”

Perhaps there’s another one? My daytime job provides quite enough excitement and ego-massaging. I have no desire to perform for the assembled Qantas crowd.

The screaming was constant now, distinct in its agony.

“Ladies and Gentlemen…….”

“Excuse me, Dr Powell,” Jackie the front seat’s charming air stewardess knelt suppliantly at my feet.

“There’s a problem down the back?”

No shit Sherlock! I can hear the wailing distress through my earphone-dampened ‘80s anthems.

I unbuckle and my ego lifts me to my feet. I turn and walk slowly downwards through a dark sea of faces, illuminated only by flickering film screens. More faces lift up as the voice cries desperately from the galley at the rear.

“Ladies and gentlemen, if you could please stay in your seats while the doctor makes his way down the cabin.”

There’s always a brief, necessary period of excitement and adrenaline, psyching myself up for the battle to come. I would have happily remained anonymous, ordered another drink, but since I am summoned to perform, it’s time to get my game face on.

I resist the urge to high five others passengers, confining myself to a few winks and raised eyebrows as I catch aisle-seat eyes on my journey south.

I’ll admit it, I’m always happy to be lauded, fêted if asked, but I have grown out of the need to smear myself in medical drama. I pay an emotional price for each intervention. Images of shattered limbs and nylon nighties melted onto faces haunt me when I dream.

The screamer wasn’t in a seat.

There was a body lying ahead of me on the rubberised galley floor, head hidden by the bulkhead and occupied toilet that whooshed a triumphant fanfare as I approached.

Now I’m no surgeon, but even anaesthetists know that whether you are lying on your back or front, your feet are supposed to face in the same direction. In this case, one foot was balanced on its big toe, facing downwards and the other foot was resting on the heel pointing at the ceiling.

In medicine, we call that a “bad sign”.

I assumed it was a lady. Moderately high patent heels, tights and a blue pencil skirt was all I could see.

It was a Qantas stewardess.

First things first……a bit of traction and turn one leg round so that her feet face the same way. There’s not much point introducing yourself and seeking consent while someone is screaming in agony.

Reminded me of inserting epidurals for labouring Mums.

“Just get it in and stop asking stupid questions,” one shouted.

Suited me! I wasn’t much of a small-talker.

Now that I had straightened out her tights, twisted as they had been by her shin being snapped in half and turned round 180 degrees, I took a deep breath. Good instincts and a certain degree of spontaneity that bordered on recklessness would only get you so far. Now I needed a plan.

I said hello and made some inappropriate quip about hands up Qantas staff’s skirts. I was a very funny doctor and she smiled between winces. Her leg was more comfortable without the tightened tights and facing in the right direction.

I shoved an iv into her arm. A familiar sense of calm and control arrived.

“The pilot is circling the airport while you stabilise her doctor.”

Stabilise her in what sense I wondered? Straighten her knickers and reapply mascara.

“We need to get on the ground right now please.”

Senior doctors say “please” when they mean “Read my lips. Do this right now.”

“You’ll have to go back to your seat. Regulations I’m afraid.”

Given that she had just had the full 20 mg of morphine and my career was thus in peril, I did my best not to be rude. We were now in shared responsibility territory and I had to at least acknowledge her instructions. No need to draw pictures of blocked airways and dead colleagues. Surgeons were the same. Smile and wave boys, smile and wave.

“Tell the pilot I’ll strap in as he lands.”

Yeah right! I wasn’t going to leave her lying half conscious on the galley floor. There was no proper resus gear if things went wrong.

I was flying solo.

So what? What happened? No dramas?

Nope. Nothing really. On my day, I was amazing.

We did OK. She did OK. Ketamine sorted her out until the surgeons could nail her leg back together.

Her name was Lauren. She’s a paramedic now. She gave up being a stewardess after meeting a doctor on a flight to Canberra. She said he was lovely, gentle, kind and funny.

She found him inspiring.

I reckon that was the Special K, not my bedside manner.

Funny how you do what you do and people decide for themselves if you’re an arrogant prat, or a good ‘un.

Published by Dr Bruce Powell

Bruce Powell’s 30 years of medical expertise and professional experience are uniquely broad and varied. He was Australia’s longest-serving State Director of Organ Donation and a highly successful specialist anaesthetist, having previously led the Intensive care Unit at Rockingham Hospital, Western Australia. Bruce served five years as a Medical Officer in the Royal Navy, before specialising in Medicine and Nephrology, attaining Membership of the Royal College of Physicians. He then trained in Intensive Care and Anaesthesia, becoming a Fellow of the Royal College of Anaesthetists. A catastrophic cycling accident ended his clinical career in 2018, affording him the opportunity to further explore and exploit his creative, strategic, communication skills. Bruce has been a leader inside and outside health, creating innovative projects for organ donation and private hospitals. His current interests include writing and the optimisation of health systems through digital simulation and artificial intelligence. He is an advocate for shared leadership and individual empowerment and has a particular passion for conversations around identity, resilience, organ donation and topical controversies in the world of health.

3 thoughts on “Flying Solo

  1. Without doubt Dr Bruce Powell, you are “a good un” Brilliant piece of writing, as always! Have you published your book yet?


    1. Aaaaah Bronwen, my most generous critic! I have a number of projects on the go while trying to preserve my fragile brain’s meagre reserves. Look forward to catching up soon.


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