By DR KENNETH D KEMP
AT 6,500 feet, while flying a single engine plane from Nassau to Florida, my patient’s engine failed. He was alone in a cocoon of absolute silence. He knew that his survival hinged on his ability to locate a safe place to land. Fortunately, he was able to restart the engine but four other times during his one hour flight, the engine malfunctioned. At the time, my patient, hereafter referred to as AJ, was in his mid-30s and although he managed to land safely, this would be the first of many lessons he was forced to learn about remaining calm in the face of life-threatening danger.
AJ was born in Barbados but moved to The Bahamas with his family at the age of five in the 1960s. Outside of some transient issues with his kidneys that resolved entirely with medication, his childhood was relatively normal. He excelled in school and became a licensed commercial pilot. AJ loved his career and that, with his wife and children, gave him an incredible sense of joy and life satisfaction. But by 2014, AJ stopped flying commercially and instead became a licensed aircraft engineer with his own fuel transport business. Owning a business that allowed him to personally maintain the type of aircraft he once flew not only felt like a safer option, it was an opportunity to build greater financial security for his family.
An accident at work, literally a single misstep, soon changed that sentiment and years later the ramifications of that injury continue to plague him. AJ was filling a tank with fuel when he accidentally stepped on a trench, lost his balance and fell onto the back of his neck and shoulder. He immediately felt a sharp pop. As a former safety advisor for a leading gas company he was trained not to panic so he laid there for several minutes, never moving. His entire body felt extremely tight and he had a throbbing headache. With no one in sight to assist him and too far away to hear his screams for help, AJ slowly, carefully, stood up, got into his truck and completed his job.
Hoping that he had only sustained a bad bruise, he went home and slept. But the next day when he went to raise his hand, he felt an electric shock at the back of his head so painful that he thought he might lose consciousness. AJ called his sister, a nurse, and she advised him to immediately seek medical attention. An MRI was ordered by his treating physician and the findings were significant. He’d sustained fractures to the spinal discs in his neck and back and he had complete tears in the rotator cuffs in both his left and right shoulders with a near five centimeter muscle displacement, a profound gash that ran the length of nearly two inches.
The injuries that AJ sustained were alarming because any further shift could result in paralysis. A neurosurgeon was consulted and it was determined that his neck fracture was most critical and had to be repaired first. That surgery was performed in 2014 and he couldn’t undergo any other surgeries for one year in fear that while attempting to repair his back and shoulder, it may undermine the healing in his neck.
His right dominant shoulder was then operated on in 2015 but weeks later, as he was getting ready to go to church, his wife noticed that his shirt was wet near his incision site. When he removed his shirt, the area was red and pulsating. It had been painful since his surgery but that day, as he gently pressed along his shoulder, the incision site exploded, bursting out a copious amount of blood and pus.
AJ was admitted to the hospital. His shoulder was gravely infected and had to be operated on immediately for a second time. He was placed on a strong cocktail of intravenous antibiotics and kept in hospital for several days until the infection resolved. For the next year and more, he underwent intense physical therapy on his right shoulder. With both his neck and right shoulder injuries repaired, AJ was eager to have his back and left shoulder injuries addressed. His pain at night was debilitating and intense but in the day he was surprisingly functional so he continued to work.
In 2017, AJ and his brother were making a routine delivery transferring gas from one truck to another when the unthinkable happened. The delivery truck, filled with highly combustible gas, exploded, possibly the result of someone nonchalantly tossing a cigarette near it. AJ’s youngest brother was caught in the path. AJ watched in horror as his brother’s entire body was engulfed in flames. There was nothing that could be done to save him. His organs began to fail within hours of extinguishing the fire and he died the following afternoon.
Reeling from the unexpected and tragic death of his brother, AJ was afraid to undergo any further surgeries during that time. So, when his insurance provider delayed his approval for any further surgical interventions, he didn’t fight it. It wasn’t until two years later that he realized the importance of addressing his injuries sooner rather than later.
While performing contractual work at the airport, he noticed that the emergency switch on the belt console that loads bags onto an airplane was broken. In an attempt to fix it, his hand got stuck and as it dragged his body upwards, pulling from his surgically repaired right shoulder, it sliced off three of his fingers and most of his fourth finger. The fourth finger, as it remained attached, continued to drag him forward causing excruciating pain so before it could cause further damage, he pulled his fourth finger off and jumped down.
Alone and with only his thumb on his right hand, he shouted for help but the ramp was too noisy for anyone to hear. His training as a safety advisor once again kicked in. AJ remained calm and walked until he saw some airport workers who he got to bring him a towel, his four fingers and his cell phone that dropped out of his pocket. He wrapped his hand, now burning and stinging all over, and called his wife of 43 years to meet him at the hospital. Eleven surgeries to his hand were performed in total but ultimately his fingers couldn’t be successfully reattached.
To a pilot, travelling west means to follow the setting sun so when a pilot dies it’s often referred to as flying west. At age 67, AJ recognises how close he’s come to flying west on multiple occasions and how fortunate he is to still be alive. Last year when his legs began to cramp at night, he finally had the fractured disc in his back surgically repaired and early this year he underwent left shoulder replacement surgery.
Now retired, he spends most of his time with his wife, kids and grandkids and he is the happiest he has ever been, at peace, enjoying life’s moments. His take home message is that in the case of emergencies to think and act quickly but to always stay calm because in those critical seconds, it could mean the difference between life and death, looking to tomorrow or flying west.
AJ also espouses the importance of not dwelling on the bad things that happen to you in life but to focus on the positive. His story richly reminds us that we are all visitors to this time and place in history and for however long we walk this path, each day our shared language must be to live a life that our children and successive generations can celebrate. A life of courage, positivity and gratitude; those were the traits that helped AJ navigate safely home when his engine precipitously failed so many years ago and have undoubtedly and consistently kept him safe ever since.
This is The KDK Report.
• Nicknamed ‘The Prince of Podiatry’, Dr Kenneth D Kemp is the founder and medical director of Bahamas Foot and Ankle located in Caves Village, Western New Providence. He served as the deputy chairman for the Health Council for five years and he currently sits on the board of directors for the Princess Margaret Hospital Foundation in his role as co-vice-chairman.