Editorial: Nothing new under the sun

August 15, 2009

The belief that truly new experiences become less common as one gets older and, therefore, life becomes more predictable, is one that this doctors thinks is commonly held. But a surprising event happens while on a flight home to challenge this.

Key Points

At least a decade ago, I was dining with a famous ophthalmologist friend, when his cell phone rang. Leaving the table, he took the call from his exchange, connecting him to the daughter of a woman whose cataract he had removed that morning.

Returning to the table, he shared the basics of the conversation. "The instructions on the bottle say the drops should go in my mother's right eye" said the daughter. "But is that her eye on the right as I look at her, or is it the eye on the same side as my mother's right hand?"

"I'm not so young anymore," said my friend. "So I would have imagined that if I were ever going to get a call like that one, it would have happened before now."

The belief that truly new experiences become less common as we get older and, therefore, life becomes more predictable, is one that I think is commonly held. But I thought of my ophthalmologist friend while returning to the United States on a flight from Europe. After speaking there, and being reminded that my efforts at humor often don't seem to translate well into foreign languages (many Ophthalmology Times readers would say they don't do so well in English either), I was looking forward to a boring and relaxing flight. No BlackBerry, an improving book, perhaps a glass or two of Chardonnay, and a nice nap.

Shortly into the flight, off the coast of France, the young and pretty (but not a loyal Ophthalmology Times reader) person in the window seat next to me pointed and said, "there's another plane flying circles around us." Sure enough, what looked like a small (compared with our jumbo commercial plane) military jet was moving rapidly across the sky. It disappeared for a few moments, then rocketed past us, coming from the front on the left side and seemingly close enough to hit with a baseball. The left wing of our plane actually went through the vapor trail left by this jet. It was a pretty impressive sight. "What is this all about?" I wondered. Then the jet turned and flew off to the French coast, and we never saw it again.

Is there a doctor on the plane?

A while later, the flight attendants came though and offered us beverages. Soon my book was open, my Chardonnay had arrived, and the relaxing part of the flight was about to commence when the announcement came: "If there is a doctor on the flight, please identify yourself to the flight attendant by pushing your call button."

"You're a doctor," said the woman next to the window. "Yes," I replied, while pushing the button, "but not exactly the kind they're usually looking for in these situations."

Unfortunately, the passenger needing medical attention was quite ill. With a history of ischemic heart disease, diabetes, and hypertension, he was ashen in color, severely diaphoretic, tachycardic, and hypotensive. Looking at him, I was glad that there had been no time to drink any wine. Fortunately his condition improved somewhat with oxygen. After 3 hours, the pilot made an unscheduled stop in a third country. Emergency medical personnel and a local physician slipped onto the plane, quickly evaluated the man, and took him off to the hospital. I hope everything turned out well for him.

"You were gone a long time," said the traveler in the window seat upon my return and as we took off for our original destination. "Everything OK?"

"Yes," I replied, opening my book, picking up my replacement glass of wine, and looking forward to the boring flight home.

Peter J. McDonnell, MD director of the Wilmer Eye Institute, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, and chief medical editor of Ophthalmology Times.

He can be reached at 727 Maumenee Building, 600 N. Wolfe St., Baltimore, MD 21287-9278 Phone: 443/287-1511 Fax: 443/287-1514 E-mail: pmcdonn1@jhmi.edu