Is there a doctor on the plane?

Doha to Phnom Penh. We take off in the witching hour, planes waiting on the dark desert tarmac like strange sea creatures. Does anyone ever actually stop in Doha? Second flights always feel like no-man’s land to me: between two unknowns, a stranger to everyone. And night flights, as everyone knows, are the ones that vanish. From an unknown to a mystery.

Anyway, by the second flight I’m often too tired to care. And this one’s half empty, so I manage to lie down and sleep for a while.

I’m woken by a loud thump. To my mind, thumps on planes always = imminent death. Looking round however, I realise that a man has collapsed in the aisle behind me. There are a host of, well, hostesses around him and he’s just starting to move again – looks like he fainted. He’s ok, I think, lying back down to sleep. Also, plane still in air – phew.

That’s when I hear the announcement. You know, the announcement. “Is there a doctor or a nurse on the plane? Can any doctor or nurse please come quickly.”

Me? Naaaah, I think, looking round. There has to be a doctor or nurse on this huge plane somewhere. They’re pretty common professions. Several doctorless and nurseless seconds go by though, and I find myself standing up. I thought this moment would terrify me, but it doesn’t. (I’d be more terrified if I wasn’t pretty sure the guy has only fainted).

“I’m not a doctor” I say, going over to the huddle of hostesses. “But I’m a student doctor”.

They turn. “Oh, thank you doctor”. (Did they hear me?) A case appears containing a handheld sphygmomanometer and a shrink-wrapped stethoscope. Can you check his pulse and blood pressure for us, and write a doctor’s report?

Can I? Well, this is what I’m training for. I put the cuff round his arm, so grateful for those lessons, way back in first year, on how to measure blood pressure by hand with a stethoscope. It’s a surreal moment, listening for the Korotkoff sounds over the roar of jet engines. I take a quick history too, checking there’s nothing else going on.

I’m lucky, the guy is ok and I’m confident to write that down (stating clearly my student status). Returning to my seat, I realise it’s the first time I’ve had to use my skills – however basic – in a real situation, far away from guidance. It feels good.

Pteromerhanophobia to Phnom Penh

Something about me: I’m afraid of flying. Really afraid. Nights before a flight I’ll lie in bed made breathless by the certainty of an imminent, terrifying death. Plane crashes are statistically highly unlikely, you say? They happen, I say. Who’d you think is on that plane that vanishes or tumbles out of the sky in the dead of night? It has to be someone – why not any one of us – why not me?

At the same time though, flying fascinates me. Ascending, taking off, watching as your home your country becomes the whole world. Flying changes your perspective on everything. The way back gardens become snow-ridged mountains. The lives and loves and wars played out across hundreds of cultures below as you eat your pseudo middle-eastern sandwich from the Doha section of the airplane meals dept and watch reruns of Friends. It’s another dimension. Marco Polo took 24 years over this journey.

Anyway, there’s a huge world out there; sometimes you have to balance risk of death against the probable gains. And I’m off on medical elective – two months in which we’re let loose to do anything we like (related to medicine), anywhere we like in the world. How on earth do you make a choice like that? I chose a small surgical hospital in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, specialising in cleft lip and palate repairs, burns reconstruction, trauma surgery and cataract surgery. Phnom Penh! It’s almost worth it for the name alone.