Boston: It seems fair to say that the passengers who boarded Northwest Airlines Flight 59 in Amsterdam on Wednesday did not expect that by the time they landed in Boston seven hours later they would have new faith in themselves, and almost certainly not in the state of humanity.
But as they jubilantly disembarked at Logan, they clapped one another on the back, hugged, and talked of life-changing experiences and renewed beliefs in the goodness of people.
“The spirit of America is alive,” beamed Natarajan Raman, a radiation oncologist from Minneapolis.
The reason was the unexpected, and rare, mid-flight birth of a 6.5lb baby girl named Sasha.
“Everybody was there to help,” said Dr Raman, who helped deliver the child. “People offered baby food, people brought things, people vacated their seats. All I need to let you know is that despite the recession, we’re still progressive in our thinking.”
The baby and mother, a Ugandan woman, were whisked to Massachusetts General Hospital, where they were reported to be doing well.
“It’s wonderful,” said Paresh Thakkar, the medical director of the Methuen Health and Rehabilitation Center who also helped with the delivery. “Happy new year for everyone in the family. Good Christmas gift for everyone in the family.”
Before the delivery, it had been a sleepy, packed international flight, full of exhausted passengers returning from Europe and India. Most of the 124 passengers on board were dozing after six hours in the air. Then, somewhere over Halifax, the crew made an unexpected announcement: there was a medical emergency. Were there any doctors on board?
Thakkar, who was half-asleep, still tired from celebrating a wedding in India, leapt from his seat. So did Dr Raman, who was returning from his 25th medical school reunion in India. Running to the rear of the plane, they found a woman doubled over in row 33, moaning in pain. “She was in distress,” Thakkar said. “She had lots of pain and cramps in her abdomen and so when I examined her she said, ‘I’m eight and a half months pregnant.’”
The flight crew asked Dr Thakkar to make a split-second decision. “They asked me, ‘What do you want to do, doctor? Do you want to land the plane immediately somewhere?’” Thakkar said.
“I said, ‘No, let me examine her first. I examined her and the head was coming out. So I said, ‘No, it’s an emergency and we will do it here.’”
Dr Thakkar, former emergency room physician at Lawrence Hospital, said he was not nervous. “In an emergency you just do what you have to do,” he said. “It's what you learned for.”
Dr Thakkar and Dr Raman laid the woman across several seats, while the flight crew ran for a medical kit. Phil Jones and Susan MacDonald, a Danvers couple who were seated one row in front of the woman, grabbed a blanket and held it up, making a curtain for the makeshift delivery room.
“We were the official blanket-holders,” Jones said.
Flight attendants handed Dr Thakkar and Dr Raman rubber gloves, a clamp, and scissors, and they delivered the baby in about 30 minutes. She was healthy, with bright eyes and dark hair.
“She looked perfect,” Dr Thakkar said. “She opened her eyes and was very happy.”
The doctors cleaned the girl and handed her to the mother, who was exhausted but overjoyed. “Thank you very much,” she told the doctors, Dr Thakkar recalled. “We love you.”
When the flight crew announced that a baby had been born on board, the passengers erupted in applause. “Everybody was worried, and they announced that the baby was born, and everybody clapped and then the doctors came back and everybody clapped for the doctors,” said Ashish Nanda, a passenger from Newton who was on his way back from visiting family in India. “We all felt great.”
Stephanie Marques, a passenger from Harwichport, said it was the most exciting flight she had ever been on. “Everyone did a great job,” she said. “It was really moving.”
Customs officials deemed Sasha a Canadian citizen, because she was born over Canadian airspace. The flight landed about 45 minutes after the birth.
The mother’s identity was not clear. Nor were her reasons for travelling to Boston at such a late stage of pregnancy. Passengers said she was travelling with a toddler. She told the doctors her name was Susan, but Northwest Airlines, MGH, and Massport declined to release her full name, citing privacy considerations.
Paul Thibeau, a Northwest spokesman, said no rules prohibit women from flying while pregnant. Flight crews can deny a passenger entry on a plane if they are concerned about her safety, but generally leave it to a woman and her doctor to decide when it is safe for her to fly, he said.
Thibeau said he was not aware of anyone stopping the woman from boarding Flight 59.
Hours later, Dr Raman was still at Logan, his flight home to Minneapolis delayed because of the snow. But he didn’t mind. He passed the time clicking through photos of the baby on his digital camera.
“It’s always a joy to see a newborn baby,” Dr Raman said. “And I was glad I was able to help.”
©2009/THE Boston Globe