Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Passenger of the Day: Mr. Ebola

Health scares come and go and I've never understood them, nor have I fallen for them. I remember in the months after 9-11, the media going berserk about a few cases of possible ricin; a poisonous white powder found in packages sent to a few of our leaders and possibly left in aircraft lavatories. To watch the news, one would think a ricin apocalypse were on the brink of breaking out and if we didn't heed the warnings of the talking heads, we'd all parish to bequeath the planet to the cockroaches. But I don't recall anyone dying from it in the US (and I am unable to find reports of deaths on line in writing this).

When SARS broke out, I lost my job for a few months because people stopped flying. When first reported, again, one paying attention to the news reports would think the world were about to end. A report issued in the early months advised those paying attention that a common disease like influenza kills 20,000 people every year; 200 times as many people who had died of SARS.

But new health scares are what sells. Bird flu, penguin pox, fox news syndrome, hokey-pokey disease and most recently it was Ebola getting people's attention. There were 18 cases of Ebola in Europe and the US. But to hear the chatter from friends and even some of my flying partners, you'd think there were a few zeros behind those 2 digits. I spoke to a friend who told me he'd kissed someone who had just been to Africa, and he was waiting for the incubation period to end to see if he had contracted the disease. Dr. Penguin assured him that, while he may have contracted something, a deadly African disease was not on the short list!

During the scare, friends asked me what procedures and training we have undergone at Mother Airline in the wake of this new threat to our way of life. In return, I tell them I no longer pay attention to the news reports!

Our training is already in place for dealing with health issues, and since this latest one, named after an Italian bowling score (ebola a perfect game-a) is only spread via direct contact with bodily fluids, and not an airborne contagion, I'm not all that concerned. Our universal precautions and frequent hand washing do the trick.

This isn't to say that I totally ignore what is going on around me. I have the information I need, I have the tools and smarts to deal with the risks, and I have the knowledge that I have a greater risk of dying in a car wreck, from a tragic incident involving a mule or being hit by a fruit cake. Contracting the Ebola virus is extremely unlikely, but unlike with a mule, the potential threat is serious.

On a trip, to Oahu, Hawaii, I was in the aisle with the beverage cart during our initial service after taking off from Houston, when the girl I was working with came up to me with a bit of a frantic look on her face. “Why did they board the duty free catalogs and remove the Sky Mall magazines? We don't sell duty free going to Hawaii. This gentleman in the hat asked to buy some cologne and I told him we don't sell it. Then he told me he was disappointed to hear that, since he left his back at home in...” wait for it... “NIGERIA!” (Cue the music of impending doom.)

I looked over to see a very healthy looking man about my age, dark, black skin, nice shirt and a silly trucker-style ball cap, looking through a magazine. Yeah, he's a killer, and he's my passenger of the day; Mr. Ebola.

We advised the other crew members of the man on board who was transiting from a region of the world known to have a contagious disease, as we are trained to do. What didn't help things along was that a woman in 3A got sick in the first class lavatory after asking for an air sickness bag, and the flight attendant came to ask me if I thought we should lock it off. I asked if she had made a mess in there, but the flight attendant was too scared to open the door to take a look. She wanted to ask if the woman had come from Africa, but was too frightened. To quell her fears, I went to the woman and first comforted her, “I hear you're not feeling well, is there anything I can get for you?”

“Oh, no, I'm feeling much better,” she said, and she looked quite chipper and was smiling. She assured me that she had just had too much chai in the airport; 2 cups, back to back, in fact, and now that she got it all out of her system, things were feeling normal again.

“That's great, and you do look very well. By the way, have you been traveling to any place that would be of concern to us?”

She smiled, knowingly and I got the answer I suspected, a 'no'. I informed the nervous flight attendant, who seemed to have a large weight taken from her shoulders, and she thanked me profusely for dealing with the situation for her.

Later in the flight, I was told the story of when Mr. Ebola walked to the aft galley to purchase some food. In handing over his credit card, he first licked his finger, as if he were thumbing through the pages of a book. Ebola or not, that was sort of gross. I asked if surely she didn't handle the saliva-soaked credit card after his doing so. No, she turned around and got a paper towel from the dispenser, took the credit card in the paper towel, never touching it, and returned it to him in the same fashion. Nice.

I'm very sensitive to the manner in which I pick up trash from passengers. Five years ago, I contracted a virus, most likely from flying, that nearly took me from this mortal plane. I always use a bag for picking up trash and always wash my hands afterwords. I'm cautious, but not paranoid.

After we landed, a group of us went to dinner, and while the Giants played Kansas City on the TV, I asked, “Well, now that we all have Ebola, who's buying dinner?” Nervous looks were thrown around the table for a second, and upon discovering that none of us had bought into the fear, we all had a good laugh. Penguin 1—Ebola 0.

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