Couldn’t Fit on Plane…She Dies

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  • Morbidly obese woman, diagnosed with diabetes and other health conditions, decides to fly to Europe for a vacation with her husband.  Despite her large size and confinement to a wheelchair, she boards a plane in the US, sits in two purchased seats, disembarks plane at her destination.  She spends about ten vacation days with her husband abroad, but encounters difficulties when she tries to fly home.  The return flight personnel (three different airlines) say they are unable to board her, citing excuses that included difficulty transporting her from the gate to the plane itself, problems fitting her onto the plane itself, danger to other passengers should there be an emergency and need to abandon the plane in flight, inability to fit the seatbelt even with an extender and the list goes on.  The couple remains overseas, stuck, and the woman subsequently dies of health complications.  Different news outlets do share the fact that the woman repeatedly chose to refuse medical treatment because she considers it substandard to the care she would receive in the U.S.  Somehow, this last statement seems to get horribly lost in the post event discussion forums.

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    This is a tragedy.  On so many levels this is a very sad story that will probably repeat itself.  It is very hard to live as a morbidly obese person.  Day-to-day life often requires a hermetic existence for the most part, being serviced by others. Though hospitals have begun to provide oversize wheelchairs, beds, toilets and x-ray equipment, I would venture that the health professionals caring for such a person feel daunted by their inability to markedly change the quality of life and comfort level of the person.  They probably feel some professional frustration, unable to inspire significant lifestyle change, in their larger-size patients.  Friends and family get caught between trying to provide empathy, comfort and support, while hoping for a miracle that will inspire dramatic weight loss and improved health in their loved one.  Close family members and friends can sometimes feel trapped in a relationship where they want to help, but end up enabling the person and quite often helping to perpetuate the vicious weight gain and health decline.


    One of the airlines involved admitted that there is a limit beyond which they feel they cannot infringe on the rights of the other passengers, who may miss connecting flights as precious time ticks away trying to board and accommodate the large-size passenger, and who will be put at risk if there is an in-flight emergency.  How will they get past this woman who cannot move and who may block vital exits?  You also can't avoid the reality that her size and less optimal health condition can put her, and others like her, at greater risk for a health event during the long flight.  So where does a company set the boundaries between wanting to accommodate a person who has distinct special needs that may be truly difficult or even impossible to accomodate, and the rights of other passengers who have paid a fee and who have certain baseline expectations and rights as well?


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    If you buy a seat on a plane and an extremely large person arrives to sit next to you and has only purchased one seat, what then?  You have a right to your full seat, without someone spilling over into your space.  What if you have the window seat and cannot easily pass the person once in flight (if at all), to use the rest room?  And as a window passenger, are you at heightened risk should an emergency occur and you be unable to leave your seat quickly because the passenger next to you simply cannot move – and is too large to be moved by others?  Is it time for airlines to fully address this issue from both sides –accommodating the large person and the average person?


    As people continue to grow in size, with no end to the trend in sight, we will all be forced to grapple with these realities.  But I think the greatest tragedy in this particular story is the woman’s refusal to accept medical intervention in a foreign country.  I have to believe that even if inferior to American standards, her doctors in the U.S. could have communicated with these foreign doctors and her health could have been stabilized while waiting for a travel solution.  No care at all has to be worse than some level of treatment even if just to stabilize a patient.  That aspect of the story is hugely disturbing and seems to have gotten a bit lost in the discussion.


    What do you think??

Published On: December 07, 2012

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