Thursday, October 1, 2009

The case of rigor mortis

Hagai Cohen
“B-R-E-A-K     T-H-E      R-I-G-O-R     M-O-R-T-I-S.      B-R-E-A-K     T-H-E     R-I-G-O-R     M-O-R-T-I-S,”     came the garbled voice from the speakers on the flight deck.  “P-L-E-A-S-E     R-E-P-E-A-T    Y-O-U-R     M-E-S-S-A-G-E,  P-L-E-A-S-E     R-E-P-E-A-T     Y-O-U-R      M-E-S-S-A-G-E”  I said into the mike.  The conversation went through the H.F. radio of the 707 jetliner.  We were on the ground in Teheran.  “U-S-E     F-O-R-C-E,      U-S-E     F-O-R-C-E.  Came the scratchy voice again.  Obviously, my partner across the ‘ether’ didn’t hear my last request and after he said: “use force” twice our communication was lost altogether.
“Now what?”  I knew I had to break the rigor mortis.  I also knew I had to use force.  I had no idea what it meant.
Seven hours earlier, while having my early morning coffee, a phone call had disturbed my peace.  I was on “immediate standby,” meaning, ready to fly at a short notice.  I was surprised when I heard the crew assignment officer telling me: “Be ready a.s.a.p. a cab is already waiting outside.”  It had never happened before.  What she could have added to the strange message was: “The chief pilot himself will brief you, prepare for an overnight stay.” 
I put on my uniform, grabbed my pre-packed bag, and got in the cab. 
At the dispatch office, our chief pilot laconically briefed us:  “There was an accident outside of Teheran, a bus with fifty people on board, tourists from South Africa, fell off a cliff, many are dead the rest have injuries of various degrees.  We were chartered to fly them home.  The crew is the standby crew except for purser Benny Kaufman who was removed from his scheduled flight.  Benny is a qualified nurse and is experienced in handling emergencies; he was the chief nurse in a military trauma ward.”
Benny was a very small man, and to imagine him as an army major, running an emergency room was almost impossible.  Benny himself joked, “In a ‘civilized’ country, I would make an excellent jockey, not a purser.”
Our flight was planned from Tel Aviv to Teheran and from Teheran, direct to Johannesburg.
Our ground crew in Tel-Aviv removed seats and installed stretchers.  Oxygen cylinders and life support equipment were fastened around the cabin.  Benny felt at home.
We flew fast and we made it at a record time.  Exactly five hours after I’d left my coffee behind, we touched down in Teheran International Airport.  Ground control directed us to a remote military section of the airport.  The ambulances were already there, Maintenance connected the fuel truck.  A cargo high loader was used for the stretchers.  Everything seemed to be  moving  smoothly.
Our navigator got sick when he saw and smelled the injured.  “I am preparing the flight,” he said and closed himself in the cockpit. 
The five cabin attendants, three women and two men, had no idea what to do.  Benny found it easier to work alone rather than delegating authority.  At one stage, Benny asked for my help.  The oxygen fittings were of a different standard as were the electrical connectors.  We had to improvise.  Benny was on top of the operation.  It took about an hour to board the wounded, to attach them to the IVs, the monitors and to the oxygen tanks.  We wondered where the doctor was.  He was supposed to join us and do the work.
The outside temperature was now forty centigrade; inside the cabin it was a little better as we had connected an external air conditioner, but despite it, the temperature inside was 34 degrees and rising. 
We had almost completed the loading, when the station manager came with a package of bad news:  “Iranian morticians, whom we hired to place the bodies in the coffins, and the doctor engaged to accompany the wounded, have been detained outside the base gates, they do not have the necessary pass.”
“I don't understand,” I said.  “Where are the bodies?”
“They’re in the hangar,” said the station manager.
“Let’s have a look,” I said.  The station manager was under tremendous stress and completely lost.  He had no idea whom to bribe, or how to unravel the bureaucracy.  The army was not on his pay roll.
The horrifying scene inside the hangar was sickeningly hard to take.  Fifteen coffins were aligned nicely by the wall, but in the middle of the hangar, was, an impressive pile of fifteen entangled bodies, all in odd positions and hard as wooden statues.
“What happened”?  I asked the station manager
“The police threw the bodies on a hired dump truck and drove it to the middle of the hangar, dumped their cargo and drove away.  There were a few moments of silence.  I made a mental note to avoid Iranian treatment, dead or alive.
“O.K.  I said to the station manager “let's call Tel Aviv.  We have a great military relationship with the Shah, so perhaps a call from our ministry of defense will solve the problem.”  I got on the H.F radio and called our dispatch radio operator.  I explained our situation.  He did not know whom to call and I had the feeling I was wasting time.
“Get me a phone patch to Abu Kabir,” I said and he put me through.  The pathologist in charge had difficulty understanding who I was, why I was calling from Teheran, and how to communicate on a two-way radio.  Ten precious minutes were lost to establish the communication, when finally we understood each other the transmission became garbled.  “B-r-e-a-k- the- r-i-g-o-r   m-o-r-t-i-s,  u-s-e- f-o-r-c-e”.  Those were the last words, said over the radio on the subject before the transmission went dead.  Everybody focused on me, I spoke to the pathologist, and I was expected to come with the answers.
I left the crew in the cockpit and went to Benny in the cabin “Benny” I asked, “doesn't rigor mortis goes away between eight to twelve hours after it sets in?”
“Is there any way to accelerate the process?"
“Damned if I know,” said Benny.
“The Pathologist said we should break the rigor mortis.  Do you have any idea what he meant?”
“No,” said Benny, “Let's go and look.”
 With Benny next to me, I got a little more courageous and stopped two feet short of the pile.  I could see and hear the thousands of flies hovering over the bodies.
“Use force, use force,” the pathologist last words were pounding in my head.  I looked at the pile and locked on to one of the bodies who looked less frightening than the rest.  Only his legs were out and one knee was bent.  He looked more like a mechanic working underneath a car than a dead person.  I came close to him and pressed with my foot on the knee.  The leg was as hard as a welded construction.  It did not move at all, nothing happened, I tried harder, nothing.  I climbed on the knee.  I might have been climbing a rock.  I jumped on it.  As I landed on the knee, as if in magic the knee became loose and straightened under my foot, in fact I almost tripped and joined the pile.  At that moment, I wanted to run naked in the streets screaming Eureka.
“Get the entry permit just for the doctor,” I said to the station manager.  "Benny and I will take care of the bodies.”  I did not want him to be present when Benny and I jumped on them.
After the discovery, it was strictly business; we moved from one to the other, softened them, straightened them, and put them in the coffins.  Physically, it was not an easy job as Benny was too light and I am not heavy-set myself.  We worked fast and, half an hour later, the bodies were in sealed coffins, packed with dry ice.  Benny and I returned to the plane.  The air in the cabin had become extremely unpleasant.  The temperature was rising rapidly and the wounded were beginning to moan and complain, as their sedation wore off.  The station manager returned without the doctor.  Benny was livid and said, “With or without the doctor we have to take the aircraft off the ground.  It’s a life threatening situation.” 
I had to agree but for different reasons.  The outside temperature was now forty-two centigrade and very soon, takeoff would be impossible.  We were already pushing the performance envelope.  After a short discussion, we decided to leave without the doctor.
Benny assured us he could handle it; after all, preparing injured for transportation was Benny’s expertise.  Nervously, I complied. “ after the cargo doors are closed we’ll start and go” I said
The takeoff was on performance boundaries, 3500’ field elevation with 42 degrees, 70 ton of fuel for the nine-hour flight put the takeoff run on the margins of safety.
Benny’s competence and his dedication to the people caused them to arrive in better shape than they departed.  They were very grateful to him.
I have no recollection of the flight.  I remember only that none of us slept the night after.  In the morning, my entire crew was in a deeply depressed state.  I suggested we pay a visit together to ‘our patients’ in the hospital as “therapy.”
The visit was highly emotional.  We all cried. I was relieved to learn that all the wounded were out of danger.  I could not believe we had taken such a huge responsibility, flying without a doctor.
My rigor mortis trauma stayed with me and for years after, I had recurrent nightmares in which the “mechanic” from underneath the pile was chasing me with a thirty-inch spanner.
It took three decades after that incident before the mechanic stopped haunting me.
Sometimes however, especially at wedding banquets, when they serve chicken legs, I relive the memories.  The chicken legs served are unquestionably in a state of rigor mortis, and as there is no way I can jump on them, I do not risk my teeth on wedding drumsticks!.

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