Thousands of people place their lives in the hands of pilots and flight crews daily; the large majority arrive safely and soundly at their destinations. When an airplane crashes, it is breaking news and numerous organizations get involved to learn from the crash-causing errors to ensure they are prevented in the future. With nearly 100,000 people dying annually from preventable medical errors – the equivalent of one, full aircraft crashing every single day – hundreds of health care systems are turning to the airline industry’s safety methods and processes.
This collision of aviation and health care safety met an ironic twist last week as I traveled to New Orleans to attend the Oncology Nursing Society‘s 37th Annual Congress. I sat down in my window seat, still listening to my audio book, and an off-shift pilot sat right next to me, a cup of coffee and newspaper in hand. I planned to listen to my audio book, and I thought my nestled ear buds might be a clue to others, but my pilot seat-mate had other plans.
[Smiles largely] Business or pleasure?
[Removes ear buds.] A little of both. I’m an oncology nurse, and I’m on my way to a conference in New Orleans.
Ah! New Orleans! [Pauses; leans closer] So, oncology. That’s…what?…
[Quickly.] Cancer. I’m a cancer nurse.
Right. That’s what I thought. Do you want to read part of the paper? I’m finished with this section. [Offers a folded paper to me.]
No thanks. I’m good. [Puts up iPad and ear buds as the flight crew requests. Looks out window.]
So, when are you supposed to start having that colonoscopy thing? I’ll be 56 in a few months.
Before we left the tarmac I explained screening recommendations, debunked a few myths, and relieved concerns about embarrassment. Less than 30 minutes later we landed at our connection city. Our parting words included my strong encouragement for him to see his provider for a colonoscopy and his thanks and promise to do so.
Within one minute of him finding out I am an oncology nurse, we were discussing colonoscopies. I certainly didn’t mind; I was glad I could share. It’s my job and my passion, and the conversation reiterated how much people trust nurses – even those not in uniform. I am glad he felt safe with me. It’s a responsibility and honor I cherish.