Saturday, March 03, 2007

Not the best of flights

I’m now in New Orleans for Innovations, but didn’t arrive at quite at the time I wanted to. Let me explain why.

My first flight of the day was to Dallas, and while I have a tendency to get motion sick, I’m usually fine on flights until the landing approach. This flight got me motion sick on the takeoff. In fact, the first hour of the flight was moderately miserable thanks to the near constant turbulence. The flight finally smoothed out for the middle half, and I was able to get a bit of work done (for maybe 30 minutes), but then it got turbulent again and was rocky for the entire descent into Dallas.

Normally I just slowly count in my head, clench my abdominal muscles, breathe deeply, and stare out the window during landing; I’m often unhappy, but usually fine. This time, however, that failed. And it failed when we were something like 50 miles up and a few decades away from the airport. So, I looked for an airsickness bag. There wasn’t one in my seat pocket.

A few minutes later we were still a few dozen miles above the ground in gale force winds (or something like that), so I asked my seat neighbor if she had an air sickness bag (note: that’s probably the question you least want to hear from the person sitting next to you on an airplane). She didn’t have one. Her neighbor didn’t have one. Finally they got a flight attendant to come up, and she found one a few rows up. It’s a great feeling knowing that you're about to throw up and that everyone around you knows that you’re about to throw up.

Before this gets too unpleasant, I should make it clear that I never needed the airsickness bag.

However, that didn’t mean all ended well. By the time we had landed I was probably hyperventilating (or something like it), my mouth was bone dry, my skin was clammy, my arms and legs were all extremely tingly, and I had lost virtually all muscular control over my hands, arms, and legs. In fact, as I sat there slowly figuring out that the muscles that control my fingers weren’t responding anymore, I realized that if I did actually throw up there was no way I could actually hold the bag open: my fingers were locked in a pinching position holding the bag by a corner. That was a problem I hadn’t considered before today.

After the plane landed I just sat there curled up with my eyes closed. I hardly even noticed the people getting off the plane. Even after everyone had left I was pretty sure I couldn’t walk, as I was just getting control of my hands back and I felt light headed anytime I even sat up. And my hands were shaking like mad anytime I tried to do anything with them. It was at that point that the flight attendants noticed me just sitting there; they ended up calling the paramedics.

I then got to meet some of the nicest folks in Dallas; the police officer, paramedics, and American Airlines staff were all exceptionally patient and caring. The paramedics helped me walk off the plane, then politely suggested that I not try walking up the sloped ramp to the terminal until they had checked me out. They didn’t find anything wrong (they initially suspected blood-sugar regulation problems, but they ruled that out with a blood sugar test result of 94 (units unknown)). They ended up saying that I should have eaten something for breakfast (and should have had something other than a carbohydrate-laden snack bar and can of soda for lunch), but didn’t posit a physiological mechanism for the symptoms.

The paramedics suggested that I have a “good meal of real food, not junk food” and see how I feel (recommending, of course, that I head to a hospital if I didn’t feel better; they also offered to take me to one right then and there). I agreed that a good meal was likely all I needed, and so I set about figuring out how I could make that happen since my connecting flight was scheduled to leave soon. The paramedics walked me up the ramp, and the American Airlines supervisor who had been hovering around for some time now went to a computer and started checking flights; it turned out that there was only one later flight to New Orleans, and it was already overbooked. My flight was scheduled to leave in less than half an hour, but I really didn’t feel like flying right then, and I think the supervisor got that idea. After a number of calls she finally was able to get me a guaranteed seat on the next flight out; I have no idea how she did it, but I’ll be eternally grateful, as the last thing I wanted to do at that moment was get on another plane.

A good meal and a Dramamine pill prepared me for the next flight, which thankfully was nausea free. I don’t know if it was the meal, the smooth(er) air, the Dramamine, or the Dramamine-induced drowsiness that made the flight fine; I’m just happy to be here on solid, non-moving ground.

So, the question I’m left with is this: what physiologically happened to me during the flight to remove my conscious muscular control? It has happened once before (on a SCUBA boat trip, actually), and it’s quite an odd phenomenon. I’m thinking that lack of blood flow to the extremities seems like a possible mechanism (maybe combined with breathing too rapidly), but once I get back I’ll have to try to dig up some references.

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