On Wednesday-Friday of last week, my mom and I went to Gainesville, FL to see Dr. Emily Plowman at the University of Florida. She is a professor/researcher/clinician specializing in swallowing who has been doing some very exciting research into whether lung/diaphragm exercise can help with the bulbar symptoms of ALS – aka swallowing and breathing. I have had so much success in strengthening my muscles through swimming and Pilates that we thought it might help. After all, it doesn’t mean much if I can move but can’t breathe…

We had an awesome experience with Dr. Plowman and her team. My FVC was 90% (normal breathing range) and I did a barium swallowing test which Dr. Plowman pronounced “textbook perfect,” better even than some of her healthy students. The test consists of swallowing liquids, honey, pudding, a cracker, and a pill all laced with barium so they can video your swallowing on x-ray. It’s really cool to watch. She showed us how my epiglottis is actually forming a “protective hug” (her words) around my windpipe to keep food & liquid from going down my airway where it could cause aspiration pneumonia (very dangerous in ALS). She said she’d never seen that before.

Obviously, we couldn’t have been more pleased with that news. Or the results from her previous studies, which she pulled up on a laptop and showed us. She’d just gotten back late the night before from her native Australia where she had been the keynote speaker at a conference presenting her previous study. The science is clear – this kind of intervention can help ALS patients early in their disease progression to postpone breathing assistance like bipaps and ventilators. I’m SO excited to participate!!

So, we were in great spirits on our way back to NC, especially when we discovered my friend Leslie and her family were on our flight from ATL to RDU. Leslie and I grew up together and have stayed in touch through email and regular FaceTime sessions, even though she lives in Germany. Her kids ages 7, 5, 3 were all so well behaved, considering they’d been traveling for 12 hours at this point AFTER her son’s school day.

We boarded at 10:30pm to land at midnight, so I was dozing during takeoff…when BOOM! The plane lurched, and my eyes flew open to see sparks streaming past the window. I was in the middle seat, but the girl next to me by the window said she could see smoke coming from the wing, which we started smelling in the cabin.

(I did not take this photo – or write the caption – but this is the best picture resembling what it looked like, except it was dark.)

After the explosion, the plane slowed but stayed level, which was comforting. What was NOT comforting was the flight attendant pacing up and down the aisle calling out “Everyone stay calm!” The panic in his voice was evident, alerting us to the fact that this was a real emergency. Except for a few nervous whispers, a palpable hush fell over the plane – 200+ people all holding their breath at once.

My mom and I squeezed and held each other’s hands and looked out the window. There was really nothing else to do. I considered that now would be the right time to turn on my cell phone to call DP, but to say what? Goodbye? That we were going to crash? I couldn’t believe it. I also couldn’t break the silence on the plane – it was just too powerful.

After about 5 long minutes, the captain came on and said that we’d blown out the left engine. “We can fly with one engine, we do it all the time*. The bad news is that we’re heading back to Atlanta.”

[*This line was a vast overstatement. Another flight attendant told us that in her 20-year career, she’d never been on a plane that blew out an engine.]

The next half hour involved a long series of slow loops to the left as we slowly descended, giving everyone on board ample time to quietly ponder the state of our lives.

If this had been my first brush with death, I think I would have reacted like the early-20-something woman in front of us, shaking and sobbing uncontrollably as soon as we landed. I would have made all sorts of promises to get my life in order and start focusing on real priorities. But as I’ve been actively mining those questions for 3 years now, it seemed right to keep holding my mom’s hands and breathing deeply, being grateful for the opportunity to do just that.

The truth is, we’re all flying on one engine, whether we realize it or not.

_____

The post-script to this episode is that we finally landed at RDU at 3:30am. We boarded a new plane, but were delayed by what the captain described over the intercom as a “massive screwup” when the ground crew was apparently “so eager to figure out what happened” that they towed the damaged plane away…with our luggage still on board.

Perhaps to circumvent another PR disaster, we all had $50 sorry-for-the-inconvenience vouchers in our inboxes by the time we landed in Raleigh. DP thinks this is low-balling the value of our lives, but I have to say, what impressed me most was the professionalism of the Delta flight crew. They were back on the new plane because they would also be on the 6am return flight to Atlanta. They (mostly) took it in stride so we did too.

Breathe deeply! 🙂

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