One more flight and I am home after a long couple days of meetings and traveling.  I was looking forward to getting back to Austin in a little more than two hours.  I was even upgraded to first class, so I was especially happy as we boarded the plane.  I sat down and relaxed for the final leg of the day and even got a preflight drink to celebrate.

Moments later, I noticed that no one else was boarding the plane.  I asked the flight attendant what was going on.  After consulting with the pilot, she told me that an indicator light suddenly went on and it needed to be investigated.  Passenger boarding was suspended until maintenance informed us of next steps.

Darn it.  Here we go….. will I even get home tonight?  What’s wrong with this plane?   A ton of thoughts went through my head.   Suddenly I was no longer that happy camper.

But to my surprise, moments later the pilot came by to talk to us.  She identified herself as captain Jones.   She told us that the indicator light for the thrust reverser came on unexpectedly during preflight checks.  She was not concerned about the need to use the thrust reversers on landing since the runway in Austin was plenty long enough to accommodate.  But she was concerned about the possibility of the reversers coming on in midflight, as that would be a disaster.  She did not know how long the delay would be, but our safety was her top priority. She would update us as soon as she knew.

I was impressed.  I appreciated her frankness and her willingness to talk about not only the current problem, but also potential consequences.  I fly almost every day and have encountered all sorts of issues with the airlines over the years.  I have never seen a captain be so open.  I was so impressed by her leadership and actions that I decided to personally thank her.

As I approached the cockpit she invited me in and showed me the indicator light.  Captain Jones, the first officer and I had a brief conversation and they assured me they would do everything that they could to get us home tonight. She said they still did not know the etiology of the problem but would inform us when they did.

I went back to my seat reassured.  In my many previous flights, I  NEVER before experienced a  pilot so informative and so accommodating.

I intentionally decided to write this article before I knew the actual outcome of my flight.  At this point, I don’t know whether I will sleep in my own bed or not.

Regardless, the theme for  this article remains the same.   Captain Jones was a true leader.  She was a communicator.  I learned something tonight.

As a very frequent flyer, one of my pet peeves is that when a delay occurs, we passengers are often kept in the dark.  We wonder minute by minute whether we will make our connection, be late to the meeting, or have to stay overnight, etc.  I realize that often the pilot does not know how long the delay will be.  But I want to know what is going on.  I’m ok with the “fog of war”.  Just keep me informed.

Captain Jones talked with us honestly and in real time.  She made us all feel more informed about what was going on.  We all accepted whatever would happen.  We knew captain Jones had our interests in mind.  She had our back. The stress level in the whole plane went down.

It suddenly occurred to me that as a physician, I have often been in that “fog of war” with my  patients—in between the results of the various diagnostic tests and not knowing the specific diagnosis or next steps.  Meanwhile, the patient is left hanging in the balance, just like me tonight, not knowing whether they will “make it home tonight”.  Like me, the patient’s stress level rises.

Captain Jones’s decision to be upfront and inform us not only of the problem, but also what she was thinking, made the passengers feel better.  It was OK that we did not know all the answers because neither did she.   We respected the fact that before anything else, wanted to ensure the safety of the passengers.  None of us wanted this delay.  The crew wanted to get home and sleep tonight just like us.

That is precisely what we must to better for our patients.

Tonight, I felt my patient’s pain.  Tonight I was the “patient”.  I was powerless and anxious. I was waiting for my captain (my doctor) to tell me my fate.

As physicians, we do not have all the answers.  Patients will respect the fact that we are working in a gray zone.   Patients understand the “fog of war”.   They just want to know what is going on.

Captain Jones took ownership of the situation.  She was the captain of the ship.  She was a leader.  Even more impressive, when I complimented her, she simply said she was just doing her job.

Physicians, let’s use this example as what to do with our patients.  Let’s be a leader.  Let’s show our patients we care.  Let’s do our job.  Communication!  Especially during those critical times.

And it’s so easy.  It takes so little time.  And the results…… Priceless!

Good news!   Problem with the indicator light solved, and we are on our way to Austin!!!!  Time for another drink!  I’m sleeping in my bed tonight.

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