We are all fellow travelers (even if we don’t look sick)

Inspired by a call for essays about e-patient travel stories: 

Crowd at airport

There is an unspoken code at airport gates. Don’t touch me. Don’t touch my stuff. Don’t step in front of me unless you have a heck of a good reason, especially if I got here before you did.

We mark out our territory and imperceptibly edge forward, inch by inch, until the moment our row or zone is called. Then the race begins. Don’t look to the side. Don’t make eye contact. Get to that door before someone notices that you have three carry-ons, not two.

On this particular day, we were told it was going to be a completely full flight, so people stood like sentinels next to their bags, checking out each others’ stuff a little suspiciously.

First class was called forward. The rest of us pressed closer. Members of the military were invited to board.  Closer. Then the moment that signals the end of pre-board: Is there anyone who needs a little more time?

People eyed each other cautiously. Who’s going to get on early and take up that crucial space in the overhead bin?

All of a sudden, a woman rushed into the gate area pushing a toddler in a stroller, carrying a car seat and diaper bag, and somehow also pulling a suitcase straining at its zippers.

She looked frazzled and stressed, like she’d run the length of the terminal to catch this flight. We all backed up, moved our own little campsites aside, and made a path for her. Lucky pre-board. “But with all those bags?” I heard someone ask behind me. Yes. All those bags. Cue the eye-rolling and grumbling.

What we didn’t know (and I found out later) was that this young mom had just returned from introducing her toddler to her grandmother in Taiwan. Her husband hadn’t been able to join them due to a last-minute work assignment and the reason why she had to carry on that big suitcase? It was full of special formula, the only kind that her daughter can drink since she lives with a mitochondrial disorder.

So yes. She had every right to be frazzled. She had in fact flown all night and run the length of SFO, somehow pushing, carrying, and pulling all the stuff she needed to keep her daughter safe. And instead of looking daggers at her, I wish we could have all looked with love and empathy. While we were fighting for position, she was fighting real, invisible enemies.

Once again, all together now: Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle. How might we support our fellow travelers? What can each of us do to help when we see someone who is having a tough time, even if they don’t look sick?

14 thoughts on “We are all fellow travelers (even if we don’t look sick)

  1. Thank you Susannah for sharing this beautiful story! I can totally relate: most of the time, I don’t look sick. Sure, I have an odd gait at best but that shouldn’t cause me to suddenly stop seemingly unexplicably while crossing the road, should it? Luckily enough, the day I had not one but two independent drivers honk their horns at me for wobbling around in front of their precious vehicles, I was in an unusually good mood.

    Say what you will about Parkinson’s, it sure does teach you to see pride in a completely different way… and it enables you to have both sympathy and empathy for other peoples’ struggles… if you let it.

    • If you let it.


      What I didn’t include in the essay is that I’d just come from Stanford Medicine X so I was full to the brim with empathy, beaming love all over the place. So when I saw an opportunity to be helpful, to carry some of her stuff off the plane, I grabbed it — and learned her story. She gave ME the gift that day, of course, by sharing her burden, by letting down her pride and accepting help.

  2. Hooooo boy, I just had a flashback while reading this post, Susannah. I was on a 5-hour flight with my overtired, teething, and bundle-of-energy toddler Ben, on our way from Vancouver to visit his grandparents near Toronto. I was horrified to see that we’d been assigned the worst possible seat on the entire packed plane (the middle seat of a 3-seat row, with a well-dressed middle-aged man seated on either side of us). Of course.

    All little Ben wanted to do was to wriggle off my lap and practice toddling up and down the aisles. I tried my best to keep him occupied for five endless hours – jiggling, snacks, songs and stories (very very quietly so as not to disturb my seatmates more than I knew we already were) but as his squirming and crying gradually morphed into whining and screaming, I became acutely aware of the hateful glares of not only my very unhappy immediate seatmates, but every other adult within earshot of Ben’s increasing distress.

    After four hours of this, I finally excused myself, crawled with Ben in tow over my exasperated seatmate on the aisle, stood in a long line for the washroom – where I finally locked us in so I could sit and have a good long cry. Ben finally fell asleep in my arms as we were making our descent into Toronto.

    There’s only one thing worse than having to sit near a crying kid on a plane – and that’s being the poor exhausted parent of that kid!

    Every time I fly, ever since that nightmare flight 36 years ago, I now keep an eagle eye out for any child on board (especially one traveling with a solo parent) who appears to be on the verge of an upcoming screech so I can lean over and offer to play with/walk/entertain said child to give the parent even a tiny break – and who knows? possibly ward off the full-blown meltdown that might be coming. How I wish that even one other traveler on that long-ago flight with my own little guy had offered me the same (or at least, not quite so many of those daggers!)

    Thanks so much for this timely reminder.

    • Yes, we have all been there — either as the kid or the parent. I, too, keep an eye out and offer parents traveling alone a hand when I can.

      Something I didn’t include in my recent essay about going down an emergency slide: there was a mom with an infant on the plane, too. She had to go down the slide cradling her baby in her arms! Mom and baby landed safely, but yikes! Imagine. She gratefully accepted help from fellow passengers, including me (I happily took a turn holding the baby!)

  3. This is great Susannah. Empathy for our fellow humans and remembering the many things people are going through, physical and otherwise.

    Let’s all remember this on the roads too. Maybe someone who is trying to exit the highway last minute has Crohn’s and is desperate for the bathroom. Instead of speeding up and honking, let’s let them over.

    Maybe the person trying to get in line first at the rest stop store really really needs water to take their meds or is shaking because their blood sugar is low and they need a snack. We can wait a minute and let them go first.

    Maybe the person who takes a little too long gassing up their car is sad because it’s their first thanksgiving without their child and they are lost in thought. Maybe we can say hello instead of glaring and stewing.

    Sometimes these things are more visible in airports when tensions are high. But I see so much of this on the roads too and people who are struggling may be more likely to be enduring long car trips due to the expense of flying.

    My family will be on a (thankfully short) road trip this week and I will now be more attentive to these things than usual :)

    Thank you so much for prompting all of us to stop and think and Happy Thanksgiving!

  4. Great post. Real and a good reminder for tolerance and patience.

    I am that mom. With a child who has a mitochondrial disorders. With all the bags and the large wheelchair stroller etc. I have the little girl who screams and cries and has a hard time travelling bc of her disease. People look and stare and pray that they don’t have to sit next to us – or anywhere near us. I know they are staring and are impatient and at first I didn’t meet their glance. Feeling apologetic and maybe a little ashamed that we create such a fuss. But now, I am a little defiant and daring them. I want to start THAT conversation about the challenges my daughter lives with and the this flight is to go to see yet another medical team, or to travel to her Make A Wish trip, or to see family she hasn’t seen in years.

    Yes empathy, tolerance, patience…basic humanity. Slow down. We all have a story.

    • Julie, it’s thanks to you and other community colleagues that I knew immediately what she was talking about when that mom said her daughter had mito. She was visibly surprised when I said the shorter term and, like a password to a secret club, we fell into step, talking together with a new level of understanding.

      Would that I always have that secret password, that lets people know we are fellow travelers!

  5. In Online Consumer Health yesterday, I devoted part of the class to the Tufts Happiness Challenge, where teams used my guidelines to come up with ideas that could increase and/or spread happiness on campus. The ideas were great! I especially liked JumboJoy: Sharing Happiness at Tufts, which was based on sharing good news instead of, or to counter, all the bad news in the world and to spread small acts of kindness. I loved that because I know how small acts – holding a door open, a thank you, or a smile – can change my mood, and it reminds me how my small gestures help others. I especially am aware of that when I walk through the hospital from my garage to my office, and ask anyone who looks upset or confused if I can help.

    Two quick notes: thanks to Pam Ressler who always kind to others – and reminded me to go back and read Susannah’s excellent post – and for those who don’t know it, Tufts’ mascot is Jumbo the elephant, hence the nicely alliterative JumboJoy.

  6. There seems to almost always be moms with young children traveling alone these days and juggling all the assorted extras necessary to travel. I’m amazed at their prowess – or how they seemingly sprout extra arms to carry the surplus bags and hang on to wandering, restless children. Special needs or not, we need to return to the days of tolerance and compassion and not view travel as competition for the extra space on board. This was timely as I am facing another trip this week – I am not looking forward to the race through the airport in Detroit to make a short connection to Boston. And that will be with wheelchair assistance – which will cause even more stares as people will undoubtedly size me up wondering what could possible be wrong with me that I need that extra help.

    be well, Laura

  7. Wow, Susannah, I feel like I was that mom so, so many times. With the clinical trial, Case and I have flown on over 50 round-trip flights, so over 100 flights total in the last 4 years. He is impatient, he is hyper, he is grabby, he engages in repetitive motions with the tray table, the window cover, and the seatbelt. But…he looks.so.normal. While overall, we’ve had wonderful experiences, there has been the occasional refusal of pre-board (cue doctor letter), refusal of pre-board assistance of my travel companion to hold Case and keep him from ejecting the jetway while I pack up the wheelchair (cue tweets to Southwest Airlines), refusal of TSA screening in his wheelchair (cue calls to supervisor), and the like. I wrote a post a few years ago with some scenarios that affected us and others along with some advice for those with invisible illnesses. http://www.savingcase.com/index.php/2012/08/20/standing-up-for-invisible-illnesses/

    • My apologies for not approving this comment more quickly — for some reason it got caught in the spam filter.

      Note to everyone: if your comment isn’t approved within a few hours, please feel free to email me: susannahRfox at gmail (note the R)

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