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Death on a plane

A FEW DAYS ago, a man died in Ireland. He died at Shannon Airport, stretched out in the aisle of a Boeing 777 on American Airlines Flight 155 en route from London to Boston. I don't know his name; we never met. But our paths crossed, if only for a moment.

We were somewhere over the Irish Sea when a voice over the loudspeaker called for a doctor. A stocky man clad in black jeans and a sport shirt quickly moved toward the commotion in Row 22. There was a flurry of activity as one stewardesses reached for an oxygen tank and another hurried to the galley for water. Still another comforted the man's wife as the doctor massaged her husband's chest in powerful thrusts designed to restart his heart. After a while, a younger man, a passenger, took over the physical labor as the doctor counted out loud.

I was in Row 27, seated next to a retired businessman returning from a golfing holiday in Spain. We sipped our cocktails as dinner service was suspended. In Row 26, a cool kid in a T-shirt and jeans played computer games. A quiet man in a yarmulke came up from the back of the plane, curious at the prolonged disturbance. Everywhere people were turning off their headsets, folding magazines, growing silent with anticipation as the doctor tried and tried to save a life.

When the pilot announced an emergency landing at Shannon, 150 people exhaled in unison. The electronic flight plan showed the plane making a hairpin turn toward what would, surely, be a safe resolution to the crisis. But landing would take time and time passed slowly. The doctor knelt down to use his own hands. Several passengers were counting with him now, keeping the rhythm going. Another arm encircled the wife whose eyes glittered in disbelief. Eventually, the plane came over the Aran Islands, the otherworldly moonscape of the Burren, and up over the silvery surface of the River Shannon. Rocking out of the sky onto Irish soil, we entered a new country of hope.

Emergency Medical Technicians burst onto the plane in neon vests, bringing energy and hi-tech equipment. In consultation with the doctor, they proposed emergency surgery to install a temporary pacemaker. Passengers in the immediate area moved to the back of the plane. Those who didn't move turned their gaze to the windows, out toward the imagined beauty of Ireland.

Sometime between 7:15 and 7:30 p.m. the Irish EMT looked at the unwavering line on his portable EKG, and then at his watch, and then up at the doctor. A pastor came forward and said a prayer. It was over. There was nothing left to do.

International air travel has become dehumanizing. We are inspected like criminals and herded like animals. We crisscross the world at head-banging speed, half expecting lost luggage and bad food, or no food at all. At Heathrow, there are signs declaring that ''assault" and ''verbal abuse" against airport staff will not be tolerated, which suggests that both offenses are common enough to warrant the statement.

But here at Shannon, the system stepped aside and humanity intervened. All we wanted was to see the man stand up and put his arms around the woman I last saw leaning against a plastic wall, her mind reaching to grasp this event. Soon officials would arrive with forms and procedures for her to follow. There was a body to return to London, luggage to retrieve, papers requiring her trembling signature.

I think of her sobbing in the arms of the doctor, she who is planning her husband's funeral as I am writing these words. I think of the apologetic doctor who was moved up to first class for the Shannon-to-Boston leg of his journey. I remember the tireless Boston-based crew and the stewardess who made the sign of the cross over her rumpled uniform as blankets were lifted over the body.

During the two hours we spent at Shannon, the light drizzle of early evening became a windswept rain. The fields around us turned from dark green to a saturated emerald color, bright and wet, as if lit from below. We taxied slowly out to the runway and took off quietly, each of us lost in thought. Climbing in altitude, we came above the thick canopy of clouds. Up there, at that time of day in the direction of Boston, you soar toward sunset; you fly into pink and golden light streaming like a scarf. In endless space, you see the purity of an empty sky off the edge of the metal wing and feel the comfort of those around you. Maybe this is how people used to feel before machines and timetables entered our lives. Maybe this is why we travel as much as we do.

I don't know the name of the man who died in Ireland; I never quite saw his face. But I do know that his sudden death gave us a sense of gratitude for each other, a moment of life in the midst of death. I want to remember that moment, even as I remember the sorrow of leaving a fellow traveler behind.

Patti M. Marxsen is a freelance writer and manager of publications at the Boston Research Center for the 21st Century in Cambridge.

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