Blacking out in the aisle of a plane midflight is unnerving — not to mention socially awkward.

I had just woken up from a five-hour sleep on the overnight flight from New York to Paris. My first thought, as always, was to visit the bathroom, especially before breakfast was served and the aisle would be blocked. I pressed the button to raise the comfy seat from near-flat to upright position and unbuckled the seat belt. I stood up to find my slippers. Maybe a little too fast.

I became dizzy, breaking into sweats up and down my body. Sweating is disgusting especially on a plane surrounded by people and no chance of a shower. My vision became blurry, tunnel vision I think it’s called, and then, as if in slow motion, my legs fell out beneath me. This is quite scary if it’s never happened to you. (Although it is scary even it if has). Crumpled on the floor, in the dark, was me at 30,000 feet. And I still had to pee.

At least it was Business Class. The pundits don’t talk about this in debate over healthcare reform, but it’s true your experience is indelibly shaped by advantages in your circumstances. We know the the rich get better coverage and better doctors, but it’s also true they get better nurses. Stewardesses are like nurses — lovely, knowledgable, accommodating, comforting, manicured.

On my shoulder soon after I fell, I felt the hand of the Air France stewardess. Even in my clogged ears (had my hearing gone too?), her musical French accent cut through the din to ask if I was okay. I managed to nod yes, and mutter I would be fine. “I stood up too quickly after sleeping flat,” I explained. “This has happened before.”

This has actually happened three times before — all on red-eye flights to Europe. The first was to London for work, the second to Ireland for a friend’s wedding, and another on a flight like this one to Paris. If you’re collecting facts or a private investigator like Jason Schwartzmann’s character on HBO’s Bored to Death, here they are: The dizziness always occurs after waking and quickly standing up. It also is after 2-3 glasses of wine imbibed to help me fall sleep. I note this only to myself. It’s a vasovagal response thing, I learn from Wikipedia, and one of the triggers is high altitude. My father has had vasovagal responses in restaurants if he doesn’t eat soon enough after medication or with liquor. I called him about this to find out how he handles it and to see if his symptoms are the same. He’s learned to lay down on the floor — even in a restaurant — to get his blood pressure even again, he said. Luckily for me, none of these times occurred sitting in Economy Class. I hate Economy. I doubt the attention would have been even half the same. I might have collapsed in the dark, but not found by a stewardess until day break when the beverage cart had rolled into my prostrate body. The carpet is probably not cleaned more than once a month. Compared to the high-touch care of Business Class, Economy is the HMO of inflight.

I still needed to go to the bathroom. Able to stand up, one stewardess walked with me towards the sliding doors with the assuring words “Vacant.” I still wasn’t right yet, though, and she could tell. “You can’t go in there alone yet,” she was firm. By this point, I woud listen to anything she had said. For me, the French accent evokes a sense of history, art and confidence, and they have a good healthcare system. She sat me down in a kitchen jump seat, and brought me a wet cloth which immediately helped me cool down. I relished in the simple pleasures like a refreshing towel and the moment was my most positive since I woke up. I wasn’t going to die and there was hope I would get better.

Three stewardesses conspired in French while I sat there with my wet cloth, waiting it out. They agreed I should have oxygen and informed me so. They wheeled over a giant tank and handed me a mask to pull around my head. I had never put on one of these masks, yet had seen them so often on the safety videos. It fell off my face, which was disturbing for future worries, but we got it back on and it stayed in place. The turn of a knob and I was guided to “breathe” and did. The oxygen worked quickly, and to the stewardesses’ questions if I was feeling better, I was able to finally say yes. Yes, much better actually. Finally, I was released to go pee and everyone was able to go back to their duties. I wonder how much breakfast I held up from being served.

By the time we deplaned (love that word), I was still emotionally shaken but physically recovered. I had to fill out a form with my name, ticket number, phone number and home address. Europe loves paperwork, I know, but I think this was a normal procedural thing to cover their ass in case I dropped dead on the train from Paris to Belgium where I was headed for a speaking engagement. I smiled at the people sitting around me who looked at me with concern, probably relieved it hadn’t been them or we didn’t have to do an emergency landing and throw everyone off schedule. Maybe they were suspicious I was a drug addict or had a unique medical condition.

Next time. Recovery is always a bright, cheerful state of being and I of course made all sorts of promises to stay in that safe limelight. For example, I swore off drinking any wine whatsoever next flight, not even a glass. Since going from flat to upright too quickly may have thrown me off kilter, I also wouldn’t recline my seat all the way either to sleep. And I certainly wouldn’t stand up so quickly. Perhaps I’d count to ten as I stood up to find my shoes.

Reaching the custom booth lines, I already knew I didn’t mean a word of it. Especially the promise to forgo wine on such a long flight. I suppose I should see a doctor. I suppose I should read more than Wikipedia. But give up wine on my flight back to New York next week? Turn down the free champagne before an eight-hour luxury flight watching movies?

After all, I’ve never blacked out flying westbound.

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MAT ZUCKER is chief creative officer of a big ad agency in New York City, but more importantly is a small time writer of memoirs, essays and fiction on the side. He has published in The New York Press, Our Town, The West Side Spirit and nthWord and is currently the advertising correspondent for The Faster Times. Cornell graduated Mat with a B.A. in English/Creative Writing. One vaguely interesting thing about Mat is his Oral Allergy Syndrome, which prevents him from eating apples, pears, peaches, plums, berries, carrots, cucumbers, celery, nuts, snow peas, tomatoes and red wine — though gratefully not white. He lives in Manhattan with his partner Bryan and their dog Ezra Pound and tweets regularly. He is from Springfield, New Jersey, but you're sure to hear plenty about that.

4 responses to “No Sweat: Blacking Out At 30,000 Feet”

  1. Nathaniel Missildine says:

    The eastbound transatlantic flight is almost always hellish. Having taken it more than a dozen times, it’s without fail the worse half of the round trip. I’ve never blacked out, but afterward I’m always left feeling throttled and disoriented. I think it’s part of the reason why American tourists always look so confused in Europe.

    I love the word deplane too, I wish we could apply the prefix to other modes of transportation like maybe “I found a parking spot and then decarred.”

  2. Zara Potts says:

    Oh, there is nothing more civilised than flying business class. It almost makes traveling enjoyable.
    That must have been frightening for you to black out like that in the aisle. I once fainted in an alleyway, from low blood pressure, and it was so disconcerting. I think the funniest thing about incidents like that is the way we are very concerned at making everyone else LESS concerned about us!

    I agree with you and Nat -deplaned should be de rigeur. We should say it always. Decarred. Debiked. Debedded. and of course – “I debarred myself after drinking cocktails all night.”

  3. Judy Prince says:

    Mat, I had almost dewrote, but then read your post and wanted to comment.

    Oh you lucky man—-Business Class! The one time (my son’s treat) I did Biz Class has ruined all flights since, as well as flashing me in and out of The Knowing Few, such as when I’d chatted at the gate with others waiting to board…..and subsequently wondered whether to acknowledge them as they passed by me in Biz Class to get to their lowly coach seats (would they be embarrassed? I felt some kind of Noblesse Oblige in not acknowledging their inferior state).

    That said, I’ve also spent a lifetime fighting the horror of fainting. It’s only happened a few times, nothing serious, but they’ve been utter surprises. Several near-faints were in dizzyingly high places, including an airplane. There’s something about one’s utter lack of control—-and lack of awareness!—-that freaks me out. The only time I think I’d want to pass out would be if I were threatened with a gun and fell to the ground. It might encourage the gun-wielder to move on to greener pastures…..I think….

  4. J. Ryan Stradal says:

    Mat,

    This line —

    “We know the the rich get better coverage and better doctors, but it’s also true they get better nurses. Stewardesses are like nurses — lovely, knowledgable, accommodating, comforting, manicured.”

    is wildly true.

    I mostly fly economy — and, as with most things in America, it’s fine if nothing goes wrong.

    I once flew to Buenos Aires in the economy section, and due to circumstances I am not going to explain, I slept for the entire 10+ hour flight. Didn’t move out of my seat once. Sat down, buckled in, and woke up minutes before the landing gear went down. Scared the shit out of the guy sitting next to me, who I assume got up during the flight (and somehow never woke me while doing so). Also being in the same seating position for that long locked my knees up — they hurt for several weeks, every time I sat or stood.

    I have a feeling that, in business class, 1. the sleeping situation would have been less susceptible to joint harm and 2. the staff would be more conscientious of the fact that it’s no joke that you should get up and move your limbs at some point during that kind of flight. I think in economy, you’re one more problem to deal with, and in business/first, you’re a customer.

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