the kindness of strangers

Yakity-Yak: Guest Blog by Mark Winwood

On April Fool's Day, 1989, a passenger on my flight from NY to Bermuda died of a heart attack. I did CPR for 45 minutes while we waited for a medical doctor to pronounce her dead. While this was going on, passengers in the back of the plane were robbing our liquor kits. The glitch they overlooked was Bermuda Customs, which were alerted by one of the other flight attendants. They were all in cuffs when the crew went through about an hour later.

A couple of days ago, a dear friend and fellow retired flight attendant, sent this to me. It was written by Mark Winwood, her meditation teacher. She knew I could relate.

Dharma 101:

Yakity-Yak . . .

 It was the Sunday Allegiant Airlines flight from Bangor (Maine) to Orlando. The plane was crowded, take-off had been bumpy as we broke through the heavy "Down East" rain, but soon all was calm.
 I was in on the aisle in the row behind the bulkhead reading my book when the motion of a flight attendant running past caught my
 attention. There was commotion behind me, something had happened.
When another attendant stepped up and stood on my arm rest to unbuckle and take the oxygen tank stored in the overhead bin, I knew someone had fallen ill, perhaps seriously so.

There was much flight attendant activity, rushing back-and-forth, and then came the announcement for any doctor or medical professional(s) on board to please identify themselves. I was not aware if the crew was successful in finding anyone who could help, and kept myself from turning around to see what was going on. My sense was to let the professionals do their job; if I could not directly help I would not interfere or distract them in any way.  But the flight was now different, charged with tension.  I found myself empathizing . . . how would it be to become stricken on an airplane . . . how frightening, disorienting . . . uncertain.

About fifteen minutes later the attendants asked the people sitting in the bulkhead row ahead of me to stand and move out, that they would be given seats in the rear because their space was now needed for a medical emergency. Shortly thereafter an elderly man was brought up and placed in the seat in front of mine.  He was wearing an oxygen mask and was conscious, but not looking so good . . . clammy, very pale and slumped over. 

The man was apparently a doctor and unable to clearly communicate what was ailing him, except to say he had heart trouble in the past and was experiencing painful tightness in his chest. His and his wife's carry-ons had been located and gone through, and a bag of prescription drugs was found.

Two nurses traveling on the flight had been found and pressed into service, and for the remainder of the flight they sat with the man, one in the seat next to him, the other in the legroom in front of him. They determined that he had not taken his meds that day, so they gave him his daily dosages. One held and rubbed his hands while the other worked to calm him. His blood pressure was taken every few minutes and was dropping. His heart beat was beginning to slow down. After a while he said he was feeling better.  

The captain came back and spoke with the nurses, who were convinced the man was out of danger enough for the flight not to be diverted for an emergency landing, which, as I heard the captain say, at that point would save just a few minutes over completing the flight into Orlando. The captain also indicated we were cleared for a direct landing, no circling or waiting in line.  


I am recounting this to communicate how beautifully this man in need was cared for . . . how those who were called upon instinctively came together with clear-minded kindness. It was wonderful to see, this compassionate caring for a person who needed help.  

A sweet man across the aisle reached over and stroked the man's arm, telling him not to worry, that the hospital nearest the airport was one of the best in the state and that if he were to be hospitalized there he'd be in wonderful hands.

Every few moments one of the flight attendants would visit, speaking reassuringly to him, through their concern articulating not worry but confidence and kindness. 

And the nurses -- ordinary passengers with dakini hearts -- remained with him until delivering him to the care of the medical team on the ground. 

I sat behind, watching this all take place . . . periodically visualizing the Medicine Buddha above the man's head, holding a bowl of medicinal nectar that cures all ills, hindrances and obstacles . . . this nectar streaming into the man's and his caretakers' crowns, infusing every cell of their bodies with perfect healing ability.  With this visualization I silently chanted the Medicine Buddha mantra.  

About 20 minutes from landing the captain re-emerged from the cockpit and came back to tell the man we'd be landing shortly and that there would be medical personnel waiting to care for him. He then leaned into the man and told him he'd land the plane especially softly, and smiled before returning to his duties.

I know that what occurred on that flight happens often, people do get ill in mid-flight and flight crews are trained to handle such situations, etc. But that's business, professional responsibility, and what I was witness to went beyond the responsibility of a job. It was heartfelt care and true human concern and kindness ("metta") exhibited by strangers for a fellow being in distress, and it deeply touched my heart.  


Upon landing the medical team came on the plane, were debriefed by the nurses and carefully removed the man on a stretcher, his wife nervously accompanying them. After a few more minutes of getting things straightened out, we were allowed to deplane.

As I was walking toward the airport exit, a woman greeted a man she had been waiting for. Aware of the delay and having seen the ambulance outside the terminal and the medical people, she asked the man what had happened.

"Oh, nothing.  Just some old fart got sick on the plane. Looked half-dead. The assholes wouldn't let us get off until he was taken away."

They kissed and turned to leave, their most recent annoying inconvenience soon to be forgotten.

Mark Winwood, founder and resident teacher, of The Chenrezig Project, a Tibetan Buddhist study and practice group in Central Florida.  Chenrezig Project