Some dates cannot be forgotten. The 7th of October 2017 is one of them.
Prakash Venkatraman, a senior corporate executive with software major Oracle, alighted from his cab at the San Francisco International Airport, went past immigration and awaited the departure call. Flight SQ31, set to take off at 11.30 am for Singapore had Prakash and 349 other passengers. It was scheduled to fly 16 hours to cover the distance of 13580 kilometres. It would be the most horrible flight of his life. Soon, this director of software development, Oracle India, planked on his seat in the aircraft and dozed off. The previous week had been hectic. The 43-year old techie, with global responsibilities, looked jaded. Thirty minutes into his sleep he realized the flight hadn’t taken off. Soon the pilot came on the public address system announcing the delay and promising to make good the loss during the long non-stop journey.
Trouble in the sky
How do you kill time on a long journey in midair? Maybe read a book or catch up on sleep or take nourishment. Once the flight settled mid-air, the airhostesses started serving food. That is when the trouble began. Hold on; we aren’t narrating Arthur Hailey’s story, Flight into Danger. Prakash started to feel eerie discomfort in the lower abdomen. He made it to the washroom a few times, but things didn’t improve. The pain was getting aggravated at a pace faster than the speed of the aircraft. “I requested some painkillers from in-flight staff, but they politely refused, saying they can’t dispense without a prescription,” Of course, how were they to understand the pain? After all, they hadn’t experienced it. Anyone who has had appendicitis would know. Anyone with kidney stones would know! After some time, Prakash could no longer bear the agony and started moving up and down mid-air. He was almost close to screaming. The flight attendants tried to calm him but in vain. Finally, they gave two paracetamol tablets. A co-passenger offered the by now wailing Prakash a sachet of Eno saying it must be a gastric problem. Even in pain, he remembered the words in the advertisement, ‘Get fast relief from acidity with ENO. It gets to work in six seconds. Exciting flavors!’
Dr. Gabriel Plourde and the emergency landing
In the meantime, Dr. Gabriel Plourde, a kindly fellow passenger – physician, began to help Prakash and sat by his side throughout the episode. At one point Prakash chose to lie on the bare floor; and was rolling near the aircraft door writhing in pain. It was then the airline staff realized the gravity of the matter. They held an emergency meeting to discuss whether to fly back to SFO (about 4.5 hours of flying ) or continue. Remember, there were another 11 hours to reach Singapore. After consulting doctors on the ground via Singapore Airlines’ TeleService, Dr Plourde administered a painkiller injection. It didn’t work. Prakash was fast getting dehydrated and was losing consciousness. Amidst all this,Prakash, grandson of the vedic pandit E K Natesa Sastrigal and a devout Hindu said: “I kept chanting the Gayathri mantra and Jaya Jaya Shankara Hara Hara Shankara.” Finally eight hours into the flight,
Prakash heard Dr. Plourde say, “the plane would detour to Tokyo.” For once, Prakash smiled. “I had lost the confidence of reaching Singapore.” All the while the staff continued to be highly supportive. The deviation of two hours was a considerable problem to other passengers with connecting flights from Singapore. The Airlines adroitly worked out the emergency plan and deputed a Japanese – speaking flight attendent – this proved vital as hospital staff were not conversant in English. Perhaps for the first time in its history, Singapore Airlines made an emergency landing on such dire circumstances and with speed! As later events would suggest, it saved a passenger’s life. Thoughtfully, the flight landed at the Haneda airport close to the Makita General Hospital. Had it landed at Narita International Airport, it would have taken long, around 100 minutes, to transfer Prakash to the hospital. Every minute was precious at this critical hour. At the Tokyo Airport, everything was ready: emergency visa, stretcher and an ambulance! In ten minutes flat, with no detention and scrutiny at the immigration, Prakash was rushed out and transferred in quick time to Makita General hospital.
Dr. Hideki Shibata and the emergency operation…
Another piece of divine grace: it was a Sunday and in most Japanese hospitals, specialist surgeons don’t work. Luckily Dr Hideki Shibata, a gastroenterologist was at the Hospital. He took no time to diagnose the condition: a perforation in the small intestine. Called gastrointestinal perforation (GP), it is a medical emergency and, if unattended immediately, would be fatal. Emergency surgery was a must.
The Hospital reached out to Geetha, Prakash’s wife in Bengaluru and got her consent for the surgery. Some 60 inches of the perforated portion were cut out and the reminder stitched, all in quick time. The thoroughness and expertise of the Japanese system were in full blossom recalls Prakash in amazement.
Help poured in for her from various sides, both morally and physically. Singapore Airlines worked out an arrangement to get a visa for the wife, and Oracle HR got into the act on the same day, a holiday, for her to fly to Tokyo. One could also be amazed at the support extended by the employer Oracle: how wonderful the HR teams of Oracle at Bengaluru, Tokyo and US acted in unison to ensure seamless rapid action!
During the four weeks that he stayed in the Japanese hospital, Prakash learned about the humanity, sincerity, and dedication of the people who lived in the land of the rising sun. But the one man Prakash will forever remember is the American doctor, Gabriel Plourde. He pushed the Airline to make the emergency landing. Dr. Hideki Shibata later confirmed Prakash wouldn’t have been saved had he come a couple hours late. Prakash had heard the dialogue several times in the movies, but this time it was for real. Perhaps for the first time, he came to realize the profession of medicine comes closest to being the profession of God. (with inputs from SV)