Surviving a Plane Crash

W/ Sully at the one year reunion

W/ Sully at the one year reunion

Inexplicable flight-paths, deadly viruses, natural disasters, war zones, and revolutions at a global, community, and individual level seem to dominate the news these days. It is a wonder that life, the greatest show of all, goes on at all. And yet, it is true what they say about the human spirit, that it is indomitable and stands resolute in the face of calamities.

Take Balaji Ganesan for example, a quiet man in his mid-thirties. There is no telltale sign that he almost lost his life a few years ago in a plane crash. Ganesan lives in Fremont, California and was the only West Coast passenger on US Airways flight 1549 from New York City to Charlotte.

Escape From Death

“Brace for impact.” Those are the three worst words I have heard in my life,” says Hudson “miracle,” plane crash survivor Balaji Ganesan. Ganesan lives in Fremont, California and was the only West Coast passenger on US Airways flight 1549 from New York City to Charlotte. Ganesan’s travel plans had changed because of a client meeting—but for that, he might not have been on that plane. “I was late, I got a middle seat and was thinking, “I hate middle seats!” Little did he know at the time, the back of a middle seat would be etched forever in his memory.

A few minutes into the flight, Ganesan felt a jolt, there was a burning smell in the air. “People said something about an engine fire,” he says, “After that, it was eerily quiet, like all passengers were in a collective state of shock.”

Then out of the quiet, the pilot announced, “Brace for impact.”

“At that moment I looked out. All I could see was houses. I thought we were going to crash into them,” Ganesan recounts, “Then my head was on my knees, and I was staring at the back of 19E. I still remember that seat-cover.”

Then the plane descended and Ganesan felt cold water trickling in from the floor and soon it was ankle-deep. Ganesan continues, “Some people were jumping over the seats, some were urging to move in an orderly manner. One of the attendants had blood on her face … I grabbed a seat cushion and made my way to the left front exit.”

As we know, Flight 1549 landed on the Hudson river on January 15, 2009. Having made it out of the plane on the exit’s inflatable slide, Ganesan remembers looking up, “I saw the building I had woken up in just that morning, in shock,” says Ganesan. “I was shoeless, my hands were numb, it was not easy to climb up the ladder to get onboard the ferry when it did finally come by.”

Once on land, he called his wife, Jyoti, who recalls, “My mind drew a blank: I am talking to my husband, he seems fine, but had been through a plane crash? I cannot forget that he had tried calling me several times that morning. When we’d finally connected, he’d joked, “What if there was an emergency and I was trying to reach you frantically?”

Ganesan and Jyoti were constantly in touch through the next day. Jyoti remembers, “My fear was about what he would  go through taking another long flight back home.”

“The return journey was the worst of my life, every bit of turbulence was nerve-racking. When we landed and I met my daughter who was a year old at the time, that feeling was indescribable—I would actually get to watch my daughter grow now … !” says Ganesan.

Life After Near Death

Back home, Ganesan refused all calls from the media (being the only survivor from the West Coast, he was sought after), the TV was never turned on, the family kept to themselves. Jyoti remembers, “He basically didn’t want to relive those moments again.”

Ganesan did however, frequent a survivor-yahoogroup, saying, “The airline just returned some cleaned up items of baggage that they could salvage and got some paperwork signed, no psychological referrals or support was offered. There was a yahoogroup that we fellow-passengers got together on, where we had a chance to keep up with our lives. Each one of us had a different coping mechanism—A few talked to the media incessantly, two other fellow passengers got engaged, another learnt to fly an airplane. What was very noticeable though, is the absence of some, who chose to completely stay away from all those who shared those terrifying moments with them.”

Days later, he was asked whether he could travel to Chicago for work. “I knew I could not cut out air travel altogether from my life. United had a channel then that let you tune into air-traffic control transmissions—that is all I did on that long flight. The most terrible aspect of the crash was not knowing what was happening, just having to hear “Brace for impact” and then facing death.”

Weeks and months later, reunions with other survivors on the Oprah Winfrey and Katie Couric shows were handled with forced will rather than willingness. Ganesan also found a new interest—researching plane crashes in the history of air travel. He can now spout related trivia with ease. But “every time a plane goes down, I go through the moments of terror all over again.”

Now

The Ganesans are now a four member family, with the birth of their son in 2010. Ganesan himself decided to became an entrepreneur and successfully sold his company in June this year. Speaking of how the crash impacted him, he says, “The crash taught me to create priorities; when hurdles arise, I can detach easily and just move on.” He has stopped listening to the in-flight air-traffic control channel, but gets on a plane “with my eyes open.”

Being Your Own Doctor

Vijaya Hebbal (Viji), owner of the Viji Beauty Salon in Cupertino, CA, was declared “free” of breast cancer in May 2014, after a five year battle. She had seen the disease up close when it claimed her mother years ago. But knowing that she had a good chance of getting it had still not prepared her for the actuality.

“I have always been regular about mammogram checkups, and every time, it was a negative result. Late in 2008 though, I felt continually feverish for a few days and taking even a few steps was exhausting. Then, I felt a lump.”

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The mammogram came back negative again. “My doctor said that it was all in my head! But here is what I have to say to every woman—You are the first and best doctor for your body,” affirms Viji. “So I insisted on getting a scan … the results came back positive, the same doctor who had said it was in my head announced that I had cancer. What I knew for sure was this was the start of a long struggle, but I wasn’t sure whether I would survive it. I was in shock and hid myself from everybody. I did not want to talk about it and took to eating to manage the stress, slowly gaining weight.”

Serendipitous Chances

Around the same time, Viji had inquired about renting a station in a Cupertino salon. The owner asked her instead if she’d like to buy out the whole salon. The possibility, and later the certainty,  of cancer threw the decision-making under a harsh new light. Viji was not sure what energies she would have to manage a salon and whether there was any point to it.

Viji’s older son, Vaibhav, supported the decision along with the rest of the family, remembering, “She needed something to fight for, something beyond family; a goal to return to. Plus, it’s just plain hard to say no to my mom!”

During the few first few days as Viji dazedly managed the salon, she stopped to say hello to a customer, who turned out to be an oncologist at Stanford, and who in turn

introduced her to the surgeon who would lead her back to a regular life. Viji says, “My salon is my temple, God is inside. I never treat the people who come in as just customers. I try my best to keep my employees happy.”

Coping With Surgery

For 21 hours, the surgeons worked on Viji, ridding her body of the cancerous breasts and reconstructing tissue to make it whole again. For days after that, her husband woke up in the middle of the night, checking to make sure she was breathing.  When she cried that death was preferable to the pain, her family rallied around her, saying, “You can die if you can (get out of bed and) take a step first.” The healing was an arduous process; the complete dependency on others—an unholy task, for someone like Viji.

Hebbal says of his mother, “We came to the United States when my mom was already in her thirties. At her age and stage of life, she could just manage her home and family. But she retook her cosmetology exams and started looking for salon-stations on rent … She’s the one who’s always pushed.” For a person like that to be bed-ridden was hard on her and those around her. Viji is unable to articulate her own experience, instead saying volumes with this reaction—“I am lucky that I don’t have a daughter. A generation has been spared this pain.”

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Contrary to Ganesan, Viji’s experience with support groups depressed her further. “Most support groups for breast cancer patients are frequented by older people, who are in heart-wrenching life situations. I felt bad, but needed help myself.” She recommends instead, to rely on the medical team for medical advice, friends and family for emotional support, and a personal routine outside of the home for keeping the spirits rejuvenated. “Always get the patient to focus on the promise of the future, give them something to look forward to.”

 

Now

People from all over call Viji for advice. She asks to meet with the newly diagnosed, “I cannot provide meaningful help if I do not see for myself what the woman is made of, how tough she is, how involved the family is,” she explains.

Early this year, Viji completed a Himalayan task: A trek to Mount Kailash and Lake Manasarovar. For the five years it took her to beat the cancer, she prayed to Lord Shiva everyday, that He must give her one opportunity to visit his abode—and he did!

Surviving a Lifestyle Change

Emergency In A Foreign Country

Farhan (not his real name) was 35, his career on fast-track at a multinational in the nutrition industry, living the life as a single NRI in the US, based in Parsippany, New Jersey.

January 23, 2008 started as an exciting work day for Farhan—he was visiting company offices in Switzerland. Trouble started after lunch, “I felt weird, breathless, but it passed in five seconds.” Later that night, his breathing started to get inconsistent, arms got tingly. “My thoughts overlappe and I felt confused. I drank water a few times, tried to watch TV. Finally, around 3 a.m. I called two of my colleagues who were staying at the same hotel and asked them to come to my room. Then, the right side of my mouth starting involuntarily moving side ways. That’s when I realized I was having a seizure.”

It was in the middle of the night in a foreign country; help was not a convenient 911-call away. The hotel-lobby was not staffed around the clock. Fortunately John, one of the co-workers, bumped into two policemen who called for an ambulance.

“I remember getting into the ambulance, that’s all,” Farhan had his first seizure then and a second one when he got to the hospital. John remembers “I thought he had bitten his tongue out, there was too much blood.” It’s anybody’s guess what would have happened if Farhan hadn’t had the presence of mind to alert his co-workers and if the police hadn’t been near by.

Provoked Seizures

The diagnosis was “provoked seizure”—a combination of lack of sleep, stress, alcohol, and de-hydration. Looking back, Farhan says, “For the next 12 weeks, life was miserable. I was anxious all the time and got frequent panic attacks. I didn’t have any family in the United States, the only friends I had were out-of-state … so I made the decision to accept the doctor’s recommendation and start anti-anxiety medication. That was a new reality for me. Before that, I studiously avoided medication, preferring to endure colds and headaches. That I had a condition that I could not mitigate by will power alone was a humbling experience.”

Farhan learnt that the only way he could keep his panic attacks in check was to have a completely predictable schedule: No late-nights, no taking on ad-hoc responsibilities at work. Dating was on hold, “I did not think it was fair to involve another person in my struggles, though having a steady relationship would have helped enormously,” admits Farhan. “You don’t expect to give up free-will in your thirties. My personality and body aged from the inside, I stopped taking chances and stayed away from every new thing, that was the only way I knew to cope.”

Now

Farhan accepts assignments carefully. Evenings out are pre-compensated by naps and hydration in the afternoon. Late-nights are made up for by taking the next day off. Wherever he goes, he makes sure he knows how to call emergency services. Dating is still doubtful, Farhan recalls, “Somebody commented on how boring my lifestyle was. And I don’t blame them, it does look that way from the outside. I’m just thankful that I can live my life rather than being victimized by it!”

Surviving a Child’s Recurrent Illness

Oh! To Lead An Uneventful Life

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Perhaps the worst pain that one can ever feel is when your child is in pain. For Sajeeta Datta, this has become a part of everyday life. Her daughter, Sachi, was three and a half when she was diagnosed with NF2, a genetic condition that causes tumors in the brain/spine. “In 2007, when Sachi was three, she had continuing loss of appetite, frequent vomiting, extreme fatigue, and she was complaining of headaches,” remembers Datta. “When we got the diagnosis finally, my husband and I felt pretty numb. In a way, we were relieved to know why she was sick … we felt pretty desperate to just get her treated and get her better.”

Right after the diagnosis, Sachi  needed to undergo two surgeries to remove the tumor. This was followed by radiation for a few months. However, since the condition has a genetic cause, the tumors continue to appear. Datta says, “We have to constantly monitor the tumors she has, to make sure they are not growing to a point where they need intervention. She had another surgery in 2012 and a round of radiation sessions as well, since.”

The family has to be on perpetual vigil, getting her vision and hearing evaluated every few months, along with MRI scans done every six months. The impact is big for such a little body, she needs to go on IV and stay without food and water for about five hours for every MRI.  Having dealt with this for the last seven years, Datta is frank in admitting, “There is nothing more heart-breaking than to have a child be critically sick. But no matter how hard it gets, it is very important for us to hold it together because children often react to situations based on how their parents are reacting … We would love to lead a normal, uneventful life.”

Now

The family has a new member, Shrey, a little boy. Sachi is in the third grade now, plays board games and the piano, and is part of the school band. She is determined to learn to play the drums better; history is her least favorite subject. These are the hallmarks of a regular ten-year-old’s life, except that “Sachi hates getting poked for the IV every few months, she gets anxious about them. And she does get frustrated and wonders when the hospital visits will stop.”

Like Viji, Datta has not relied on support groups either. Instead, she believes, “It is very important to make a strong bond with the doctors and  child life specialists. If your child is chronically ill … find a good doctor, take second opinions but stick to the one if possible. Because a lot of time having that history is very important when deciding on a course of action in an emergency situation.”

She advocates not hesitating to ask for help, saying, “Having people around you when you are going through a tough time, rather than bottling all the feeling inside helps. People around you, will not have time to notice what you are going through unless you talk about it.”

On the whole, Datta is thankful that Sachi is happy and is leading a normal life. She urges families in similar situations to “have faith and hope. No matter how hard it gets, always look at the positive side of it.” Recently, Sachi had to undergo two more rounds of surgery. Candidly, Datta told me: “I have promised Sachi that I will die very old … so I will be around for a long time to pester her, annoy her, poke my nose into her life and be there for her when she is going through tough times even if she does not want me there.”

Whatever the driving force: Datta family’s stoicism, Farhan’s self-discipline, Viji’s can-do attitude, or Ganesan’s self-sufficiency, the human spirit endures. For our part, let us look a second time at people we are acquainted with and offer a helping hand if they are not. As Datta says “A pat, a hug and even a completely random person saying—‘It will all be ok’ helps a LOT!”Datta herself has had to do it, saying, “I try to live in the present moment and not look back on the past or worry too much about the future.”

Priya Das writes about extraordinary nuances of everyday life, reporting on stories of personal courage and uncommon experiences.

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