The recent events of Tamera Ahmed on a commercial airline and the alleged discrimination and Islamophobia she endured, got me thinking about my own experiences in the air. Fortunately, I have never experienced anything as blatant as the events described by Ms. Ahmed. But as a Muslim-American, I’ve become too keenly aware of the growing specter of Islamophobia across the world. Whether it’s at a TSA security checkpoint, sitting at a terminal or falling asleep inside the plane, I have to admit I sometimes wonder if someone is watching me, thinking I’m capable of committing harm. To those that continue to subscribe to beliefs that all Muslims on an airplane are a potential danger, I offer my own personal experiences that are the opposite.
I’ve had the privilege of twice responding to a request for medical assistance on an airplane at over 30,000 feet. The first time, I was a senior resident flying home with my wife from a well deserved vacation. The flight attendant requested anyone with medical training to assist a passenger who had collapsed near the forward bathrooms. Without hesitation, I looked at my wife and headed to the front of the plane in my jeans, t-shirt and baseball cap looking nothing like a physician or a stereotypical dangerous Muslim for that matter. I ended up converging at the front with a nurse and a radiologist on the flight. Without access to a CT scanner on the flight, the nurse and I quickly took charge of the situation :-). We came to the conclusion the the elderly lady had a vasovagal episode brought on by a lack of sleep, and the effects of alcohol at high altitude on a body altered by gastric bypass surgery. The flight attendants were understandably worried and repeatedly asked me whether the flight needed to be diverted for an emergency landing. I reassured them and gave my blessing to press forward towards our intended destination. After the flight I caught up with the lovely lady outside in the terminal while paramedics assessed her. She was extremely gracious in expressing her gratitude. In addition to her, several random passengers expressed their appreciation. One gentleman was particularly thankful that I didn’t divert the plane and take away vacation time with his girlfriend.
A second and similar episode occurred on another flight a few years later. This time, a passenger that was battling a stomach bug, vomited and subsequently also passed out. I once again marched to the front of the plane to assist the passenger. But this time, as I spoke to the passenger, his sister next to him started to feel ill and weak. She too almost passed out from a vasovagal episode triggered by watching her brother heave. Fortunately, both passengers were ok as I reassured them and the flight crew that everything would be fine. And once again there was an outpouring of gratitude from a variety of people.
As physicians, we are reminded early in our training and throughout our careers to treat all patients equally. I certainly did not ask who or what those passengers were on my flight. They were people in a vulnerable situation who needed some help. Perhaps they even harbored the same biases and fears that plague the bigoted passengers on Ms. Ahmed’s flight or the policy makers of the airline she flew. It wouldn’t have mattered. What matters is that the vast majority of proud Muslim-Americans like myself continue to advocate unity and peace while in service of everyone in our communities regardless of sexual orientation, race, religion or any other identifier. We are your teachers, lawyers, waiters, engineers, plumbers, mechanics, nurses, doctors and all others. And occasionally we are also your guardians in the sky.