Monday, June 27, 2016

Look Straight Ahead

Captain Per Holmberg was making his way to work the morning of December 27, 1991. He was a passenger on Scandanavian Airways flight 751 from Stockholm to Copenhagen; in Copenhagen he was scheduled to be in command of an SAS flight to Madrid later that day. He read his newspaper in his second row seat while the ground crew deiced the wings as the plane had been sitting overnight in wintery weather. Captain Stefan Rassmussen and First Officer Ulf Cedermark opted to fly with the cockpit door open as they felt it offered the cabin a chance to connect with them, a remarkable display of trust and confidence.

The ground crew failed to identify and remove clear ice that had accumulated on the underside of the wings after being parked overnight. Twenty five seconds after take off, the airplane shook violently and loud banging similar to cannon fire was heard throughout both engines of the MD 81. The pilots immediately questioned whether they were dealing with structural damage or an act of terrorism. Both engines had sucked in ice upon take off, causing surging and severe malfunction. Within ninety seconds both engines failed, with the right engine catching fire. The cabin filled with smoke and began to fall at a rate of twenty feet per second. Most everyone onboard knew that the quiet of having no power combined with the rapid descent meant they were surely plummeting to their deaths.

I am currently living with the effects of structural damage. After years of suffering from pain in my hips and feet that have stopped me from running and sciatica that often brings my ability to get around to a screeching halt, I was diagnosed with rotator cuff tendonitis last year. First in my left shoulder, which I was able to treat with a few months of physical therapy, then my right shoulder, which thus far has been resistant to treatment. The right shoulder pain started much like the left shoulder; an aggravation that limited my ability to work as a flight attendant as there are constant physical demands, repetitive motions that are particularly destructive while bearing weight with my arms extended above my head. As of last week, I no longer have the range of motion in my shoulder required to do the job at all right now. I worked for four hours after an extended absence and intensive daily physical therapy and I was in such pain I had to admit that I am crashing, unclear about how to proceed, overwhelmed by exhaustion and denial, crushed that my wellness plan is circling the drain.

Captain Rasmussen told himself the worst wasn’t happening; that he was simply living a nightmare. Per Holmberg looked into the cockpit from his seat in the cabin and saw no action, no hands on throttles, no discussion of what measures should follow. He approached the open door to offer help just as the engine fire alarm sounded, prompting the first officer to break the silence with “Shall I pull it?” They all knew that once the fire extinguisher was activated, the engine could never be restarted. Cedarmark pulled the lever without getting an answer as Rassmussen was stunned and silent, consumed by a fog of helplessness.

Holberg asked if he could be of assistance. Rassmussen instructed him to attempt to start the auxilliary power unit as they had no radio contact with the ground. Rassmussen contemplated circling back to the airport, but Holmberg told him he must only focus on what was in front of him.  “LOOK STRAIGHT AHEAD”, he told them more than 20 times, emphasising that turning back would only squander precious energy.  Holmberg found an emergency checklist, but he quickly abandoned it as he determined the situation was beyond a series of rote instructions. “LOOK STRAIGHT AHEAD”, he repeated to them, as their only hope was to harness the remainder of their glide and not stall the aircraft. Captain Rassmussen determined he would land in a forested area in rural Gottrora, Sweden. He looked to the trees below to cushion the impact.

I am having difficulty looking straight ahead while living inside a body that seems to desperately want to divorce me. I am filled with dread as my job may continue to cause harm to me physically, regardless of whether any future treatments are effective or not.  I am paralyzed with fear at the notion of forging another road at almost 50 years old. I look at my retirement funds with the target date of 2035. That's 19 years from now, daunting as I currently cannot perform even 19 minutes of what’s required of me to keep my life revolving in the big picture. I am crashing; my muscles atrophying, my skin and flesh growing softer, providing no cushion for the fiery pain that comes from basic tasks; putting on a shirt, rolling over onto my right side in the night, shaking hands with many doctors. I often lose myself in thoughts of denial of what is happening as I do not want this to be my reality.

Captain Rassmussen was consumed with fear as the trees began to rip the airplane’s fuselage apart. He knew he would most likely die, and he would be responsible for everyone else who died with him. The plane was torn into three segments. The passengers were able to walk out into the frozen forest through the gaping holes in the plane. They smelled fuel and knew that an explosion was possible. They knew they were at risk for hypothermia as they distanced themselves from the wreckage. They were aware they were still in danger. The flight attendants hugged the passengers who wandered the tundra in a daze. One reported she hugged them as she needed comfort for herself as well.

I take comfort in pain pills and steroids and binge watching Amazon Prime and hot baths with chamomile epsom salts and gin gimlets and eating pasta in bed out of a comically large bowl. I challenge myself to stay focused on what has yet to happen. I treasure hunt for joyful prizes hidden in seemingly awful scenarios. I am grateful for the x-ray technician who was gentle and kind as I stifled back sobs while she pulled my arm across the metal plate into a photographable position. I cannot remember another time that I cried in my adult life sheerly due to being in physical pain. I am blessed with friends who carry my groceries and call to check up on me; those who keep knocking even when my despair instinctively causes me to close the door. They put aside their own troubles and they listen patiently as I describe feeling helpless and overwhelmed and they talk to me with genuine care. I truly want to have nuanced opinions about the precarious state of world politics and gun control and everything else that ignites passionate discussion on social media, but I can’t even change my own sheets right now. I’m presently wandering in a daze when I do have the energy, and when I don’t, I am idling on the sidelines, watching my life trickle by. I try not to think back to times I could run 8 miles or work 8 hours a day or sleep 8 hours a night; looking back only squanders my precious energy. I see pieces of myself in a story of 25 year old airplane accident discussed at an annual training meeting. I write about what scares me in a defiant attempt to defuse its power. I celebrate days I manage to take a shower and shave one armpit and put on clothes that are acceptable for leaving the house. My 100% may be a sliver of what it once was, but I remind myself that I am doing all I am capable of for this moment and my 100% will change and eventually grow.

When the headcount was taken of all the souls onboard Scandanavian flight 751, all 123 passengers and 6 crew members were still alive. Called the “Miracle at Gottrora”, it was determined to be unthinkable that not a single person perished. In order to not feel defined by my circumstances, I must believe that every crash is survivable and help is there for me when I leave the door open.

Here's to looking straight ahead.

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