Captain Sullenberger, Flight 1549 in the Clinic
It was a placid blue sky; the journey not too thorny and the destination not too far. On January 15, 2009, the US Airways flight 1549 set off from La Guardia, New York. The passengers, with myriad life stories behind them and yet unsung songs of the heart ahead, fastened their seatbelts for the ascent. ‘Stay calm and organized in case of an emergency’, the air-hostesses smilingly intoned the safety instructions. In the cockpit, Captain Sullenberger keenly checked the many screens and numbers and blinking lights before him, and revised in mind the protocols- just as he had done for the last 42 years. Co-captain Jeffery Skiles cracked light bon mots and went through the ABCs of the plane but with a surgeon’s astuteness for detail. Everything seemed just fine.
Just as fine as a sturdy young man before the stethoscope. No murmurs.
But a few heart beats later, turbulence! A flock of Canadian geese crashed into the airplane and both engines were destroyed. Thousands of meters above earth, the plane was not breathing. Lactic acid was collecting fast. Glasgow Coma scale plunged desperately low. But Captain Sullenberger had no time to feel startled. 155 passengers’ lives depended on him. Should he return to La Guardia, as the aviation towers were urgently advising him now? Land in Teterboro, a nearby airport? Or should he ignore conventional aeronautics, and just do his job? What did his job really entail? The whole point was to bring passengers home safely and to save their lives. For Captain Sully, that meant landing at once, not on a runway or a highway, but on the Hudson River.
As passengers braced for impact, they believed they would never see their loved ones again. After almost 6 minutes since takeoff, Flight 1549 came back to a sloshing stop. It was -7 degrees Celsius outside; water was gushing in and the plane was sinking. Captain Sullenberger ordered for evacuation. The last safest refuge seemed to be the plane’s wings. That is where everyone huddled and waited courageously for the rescue teams. This had never occurred in history. This does not happen in boys’ heroic Captain, Captain! games. No mariner guide tells what to do when a hovercraft lands in water before you. But there was no tragedy that day. All 155 passengers survived. It came to be known as the Hudson miracle.
Superman may save a windblown helicopter in the astonishing bravura of Hollywood, but in the teeth of time-compressed reality of a crash or a clinical emergency, how to make the right decision? I recently watched Clint Eastwood’s film Sully: Miracle on the Hudson, based on Sullenberger’s memoirs, and played by Tom Hanks. What a gripping performance! The whole time I couldn’t help thinking: what can I, as a doctor learn from Captain Sullenberger’s example? What do we do when our engines for life or medicine fail?
Perhaps it was Captain Sully’s boundless dedication to passenger safety that guided his every action. Or maybe it was his resolve to perfect his craft ever since he got his flying license at age 16. Was it his striving to understand every plane’s physiology, anatomy, embryology and following every discrepancy, every blip in theory? Was it his experience in the Air Force, or his dauntlessness in chaos? Was it the mountains and mountains of wiggly instruction manuals that he would read all his life as regularly as he would brush his teeth?
It was, in fact, all of these factors combined. Like rivers of reasons, they all flowed into that state of mind that made the right turn. It culminated in his audacity to forgo the fatal advice from ground towers and exercise his own powerful discretion. Surely some nuggets of inspiration for the nascent doctors here! Gallantry would be homicidal at the moment. But after decades and decades of practice, at least the saving grace lies in perhaps finally playing the Messiah Hero, yeah! and having a film adapted from our memoirs. (Sigh. Of course, just joking.)
Captain Sully, however does not see himself as a hero. He believes that he was just doing his job- heeding to the higher duty he had signed up for. Isn’t this what all doctors aspire for, too? Behind the formalities of scientific discern, it is the patient’s well being that is humbly sought after. And at the end, as Sully says, the miracle was not because of him- the real miracle wizards were Doreen Welsh, Sheila Dail and Donna Dent, the flight attendants who ensured that the emergency protocols were communicated and exercised; it was his co-pilot who was his right hand, it was the river police, fire-engines, health workers and even the city governor himself who immediately arrived on spot. And lastly it was the passengers who normally just come with a seat number and a face, but when one really gets to know them reveal so much more.
The miracle is never solely the doctor, but lies in the magic brew of nurses, paramedics, hospital managers and teachers who inspire one another. But most importantly it lies in recognizing the resilience and dignity of the patient, and in doing so, connecting with him, and in turn, the inner us.
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