“Attention passengers, if there is a medical doctor onboard, could you please make yourself known to one of our cabin crew.”
It took me a while to work out that this voice I could hear was calling for help, for me.
Not long after takeoff from the Sunshine Coast, bound for Sydney and a visit to Booktopia to sign stock of Three Gold Coins (something I was very excited about), a sudden, sharp, terrible pain contracted in my lower right abdominal region. It was breathtaking, literally. I tried to get up and walk, I tried visiting the loo, I tried waiting it out. But it kept getting worse, I started feeling horribly sick, and when the world started going black around the edges and I went hot all over, I knew I was going to pass out. I told a member of the crew that I was feeling really sick and that was the last thing I remember before I evidently lost consciousness.
I have fainted many times. Severe illness or severe pain can do that to me. But this one was different. When I started to ‘come to’ I was on the floor of the plane, I couldn’t move, I couldn’t open my eyes, and the first thing I was aware of was a loud, rushing sound, like being trapped in a cyclonic wind tunnel. Then I heard voices, from a long way away, and ones I didn’t recognise. I had no idea where I was. To be honest, I truly thought at that moment that I had died or was about to die. As a bit more consciousness came back, I must have moved because suddenly a female voice was beside me, talking to me, and picking up my limp hand in hers. Someone put something flappable on my face.
‘You’re on Jetstar,’ she said. ‘You collapsed. You’re on the floor. We’re giving you oxygen.’
Then I started to gulp air rhythmically, almost like a dog panting. I couldn’t control it and still couldn’t open my eyes. I heard them call for assistance from the passengers and make another call to get an ambulance to meet us in Sydney. Still, my body wouldn’t work. I have no idea how long I lay there like that.
‘She’s hyperventilating,’ I heard the woman say. ‘Her pulse is really fast.’
Then the nausea hit me. I half sobbed, half groaned and rolled onto my side and started vomiting. They brought me bags. They tied up my hair. They assured me I didn’t have to move or do anything. They were unfailingly kind.
It took a long time for me to sit up, though I could only stare at a fixed spot on the floor, all my concentration taken in trying to stop the world from spinning, stop the nausea, stop vomiting.
Eventually, they helped me up and I staggered to an empty row–one they’d cleared for me. The young woman–Jetstar crew–sat beside me, offering me sick bags and paper towels, sips of water and an ice pack as somewhere along the line I’d gotten really hot and flushed. She was so lovely. I’ve no idea what her name was but I remember being impressed that she could sit so close to me while I retched over and over and still be so kind. The pain was still there but had subsided considerably. Now I just felt weak, shaky and horribly, horribly sick.
The ambulance met us on the tarmac in Sydney and took me to Prince of Wales hospital in Randwick. I was there for many hours feeling a little better with each passing hour. The emergency department was heaving with people and super busy doctors and nurses. But everyone was so kind. I had a lovely doctor–Omid–who was caring, focused, quick to jump in and find a vein himself when success was looking doubtful, and very thorough.
The two main concerns were for a burst appendix or a twisted ovary. An ultrasound confirmed a burst ovarian cyst.
I had no idea I had an ovarian cyst. This event was traumatic enough in itself but for me an equally unsettling aspect is really that I had a nearly three centimetre cyst (apparently small on the scale of cysts, which can grow up to the size of an orange, while ovaries themselves are around the size of an almond) but had no idea. How easily could that have been a tumour? To be honest, I don’t really give my ovaries too much thought. They are quiet and out of the way, after all. Yet my mother lost an ovary in her mid-thirties to an ovarian cyst. I know women with polycystic ovaries. And I know two that had tumours removed from their ovaries.
If sharing this experience does anything, I hope it gives you pause to consider your ovaries. Do you know the signs of ovarian cysts or ovarian cancer? Do you take them seriously? I say I had no idea that I had the cyst, and yet in truth, I do ignore pains. Having a few rheumatological conditions already, I have a high pain threshold and a great ability to ignore pain and dismiss it as just an everyday companion of my life. But we really can’t afford to be so flippant, can we? Obviously, it’s not practical to run to the doctor for every small twinge or passing headache. But maybe we just need to include a bit more mindfulness about our bodies, actively making time to ‘tune in’ and ‘check in’ when we feel something before hastily dismissing it. Stay up to date with information about signs and symptoms to look for. Check in with your doctor.
Also, I do want to say a huge thank you to the Jetstar crew and to the entire planeload of passengers who were disrupted by my event, and at least one person I know of who had been waiting for her meal and didn’t get it at all. That night in hospital, while waiting for results, I suddenly wondered if people had Tweeted about it and complained but I did a search and no one had, and in this day when people seem so keen to take to Twitter to gripe about everything, I do appreciate that.
I’m also very sorry to say that I obviously didn’t make it to Booktopia to sign stock, so if you were hanging out for a signed copy from there, I am very sorry.
Finally, a couple of people have said to me that there might have been a connection between the cabin pressure and the event and having googled that I certainly came across quite a few women who’ve had this happen on a flight. So if you know you have ovarian cysts, I would urge you to discuss that with your doctor too.