March 1 – 15, 2008
By Indradyumna Swami
In early March, I boarded a flight from Los Angeles to Atlanta, where I would catch an onward flight to Santiago, Chile. It had been three years since my last visit to the Chilean yatra, and I was excited about seeing the devotees there again.
When the flight landed in Atlanta, I went to the boarding gate for Santiago. The boarding area was crowded, and the only seat available was in front of a television screen showing a news report about a woman who had become ill on a recent flight across the United States.
When the woman asked a flight attendant for oxygen, she was apparently refused. Minutes later the woman asked again, and seeing her desperate condition, the stewardess tried to administer oxygen, but the oxygen bottle malfunctioned. Shortly afterwards the woman died.
The broadcast continued to say that the airline was defending its actions, but it seemed obvious that there was negligence on the part of the cabin crew. The report concluded with advice on what to do should a passenger fall ill in a similar situation. “Call the flight attendant, administer oxygen, and try to keep the patient calm,” said a special guest on the show.
“It’s awful,” I thought. “I can only imagine how horrific such an incident would be during a flight.”
I didn’t have to wait long to find out.
I boarded the plane and took my seat, chanting quietly on my beads. I had been upgraded from economy to business class because of my frequent-flyer points. The passengers seated around me all appeared affluent and had paid thousands of dollars for the flight.
I could sense that my presence made several of them uncomfortable. Nearby, a woman who was filing her nails looked at me suspiciously. When the man seated next to her, who was reading the Wall Street Journal, glanced up at me, he shook his head disapprovingly. The lady next to me didn’t reply when I asked if this was her first flight to Santiago.
So as not to attract more attention, I put my beads aside and took out a book to read. As the last remaining passengers boarded the plane, the cabin crew went about their final duties before closing the cabin door. I smiled politely as several stewardesses from our cabin passed by to attend to something in the rear of the plane.
Suddenly, the man seated across the aisle from me started shaking uncontrollably. His eyes rolled back and he started foaming at the mouth. My first thought was that he was having either a stroke or a heart attack. I quickly looked around to see if there were any cabin attendants present, but they had all gone to the back of the aircraft.
The passengers around me sat frozen in shock. The woman filing her nails held the file motionless above one finger. The man reading the newspaper stared in horror as the sick man started to fall out of his seat.
I remembered the advice given on the television report. I jumped up and grabbed the man and carefully laid him down in the aisle, straddling him. I tried to calm him, but he was quickly losing consciousness. I looked around at the other passengers, who continued to stare in shock, their comfortable reality having been shaken by the ugly scene before them.
“Somebody call a flight attendant!” I shouted.
The woman who had been sitting next me just closed her eyes in fear. Others turned their heads away and looked out the windows.
I looked at the man’s wife who was crying uncontrollably.
“Is he epileptic?” I asked.
“No! No!” she said frantically. “He’s not.”
“Is he on some kind of medication?” I asked.
“No! No!” she said, shaking her head.
“Does he have a history of heart problems?” I said.
“Please save him!” she screamed.
Her husband began gasping for breath. I tried to position him so he could breathe easier. I also began to chant, softly at first but louder and louder as it appeared he might die.
I looked up at the nearby passengers, who were still sitting motionless and staring. “Oxygen!” I yelled.
No one moved.
I had to do something to get their help.
“For Christ’s sake!” I screamed. “Somebody get a Goddamn oxygen bottle or this man is going to die!”
It worked. Two men jumped up and ran towards the galley. Seconds later they returned with an oxygen bottle. As all three of us struggled to get it working, I put the mask on the man’s face. Suddenly, from the corner of my eye, I saw several flight attendants racing down the aisle.
Within moments they arrived and took control of the situation, administering the oxygen and calling for medical assistance on their cell phones. The captain arrived and called for a defibrillator, a device used in emergency treatment of heart attacks.
Because of the cramped space, I was unable to move out of the way and sat pinned in the middle of the frantic scene. The man continued shaking, flailing his arms and grimacing in pain. Unable to offer any more practical help, I continued chanting clearly so he could hear every syllable of the holy names. At one point he briefly came to consciousness and our eyes met.
I wanted to tell him that everything was going to be all right, but I sensed this wasn’t the case. I leaned forward and chanted even louder hoping that, should he leave his body, he would be fortunate enough to hear the names of the Lord.
I continued chanting while the flight attendants tried to help him. I kept wondering when a medical team would arrive. Periodically, the flight attendants moved the man into different positions to try to make him more comfortable. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, a medical team arrived.
I stood up and then sat in the man’s seat while the rescue team put him on a stretcher and quickly took him away. His wife followed. By that time he was almost motionless. “He may not make it,” I overheard one of the attendants say.
I returned to my seat and started chanting on my beads again. My heart was still beating strongly, and my adrenaline was surging. A stewardess came and offered me a glass of water.
After I had calmed down, I looked around the cabin. The woman who had been filing her nails smiled at me gently as if to indicate she was grateful for what I had done. When I glanced at the man with the newspaper, he nodded his head in approval. The lady sitting next to me finally spoke up. “Thank you,” she said.
Soon the cabin door closed. I was exhausted from the ordeal and soon fell asleep. By the time I woke up we were well on our way and most of the passengers around me were sleeping.
I sat up in the dark and thought about the incident. “We never know,” I thought. “We never know when such a thing will happen to us. Generally we only see situations like this on the news, and we always assume it only happens to others. I pray that when my time comes, there will be somebody to chant the holy names for me as well.”
The more I thought about it, however, the more I realized that because I often travel alone, I may very well be by myself or with a group of strangers when I leave this world. The thought was unsettling.
“What if I suddenly passed away from a heart attack on an airplane 37,000 feet up in the air?” I thought. “Or in bed at night alone in some far-off country? But even the most well-planned departure, surrounded by loving devotees, can be an embarrassing affair. Death is difficult for everyone. When that day comes, I hope I’ll be remembered for my service and not for the way I died.”
I thought about a story I had heard recently. A person was asked how his friend had passed away. “Don’t ask me how he died,” he answered. “Ask me how he lived.”
Nine hours later our flight landed in Santiago. As the passengers disembarked, the head purser approached me in my seat and asked if I could remain behind for a few minutes. I sat patiently, and when all the other passengers had left, she returned with several other flight attendants.
“We wanted to thank you for your quick action in helping that man,” she said. “You may have saved his life.”
“I’m happy I could help,” I replied, “although I didn’t do that much. It was all of you who gave him the medical attention he needed.”
“What we really appreciated,” said another stewardess, “was the calming effect you had on everyone. When you were singing, it felt like everything was going to be all right.”
“Yes,” said another stewardess. “It was very special, so comforting.”
“What exactly were you singing?” asked another stewardess.
“I was singing the names of God,” I replied. “I follow a faith from India where God is called Krishna. India’s ancient scriptures say that wherever God’s Name is chanted there’s nothing to fear.”
“Well, we certainly understand that now, don’t we, ladies?” the head purser said.
“Yes, we do,” they replied.
“And we have you to thank for that,” a stewardess said to me.
“It wasn’t me,” I said with a smile. “It was the Lord’s Holy Names. So the next time something terrible happens, remember to sing Hare Krishna.”
“Can you write the song down for us?” said another stewardess.
“Yes, of course,” I said.
After giving them the paper with the mahamantra on it, I reached for my carry-on items. But the attendants picked them up first and then escorted me to the door. While going through immigration and walking to the baggage area, I couldn’t help but marvel at the pastimes of the holy names.
Srimad Bhagavatam states:
tasmat sankirtanam visnor
jagan mangalam amhasam
mahatam api kauravya
viddhy aikantika niskrtam
“Sukadeva Gosvami continued: My dear king, the chanting of the holy name of the Lord is able to uproot even the reactions of the greatest sins. Therefore the chanting of the sankirtana movement is the most auspicious activity in the entire universe. Please try to understand this so that others will take it seriously.”
[Srimad Bhagavatam 6.3.31]