Sunday, June 23, 2013

Going Out On A Wing

I've been thinking about risk taking.

What is an acceptable level of risk? How do you decide?  These are questions we ask in the healthcare field every day.  They come up in all areas of life, however.

When I was a kid, I was a tomboy.  My options were limited, but I did what I could: tree climbing, bike riding, water-skiing.  In high school, I once climbed to the top of a water tower.  It was foolish, probably illegal if not actually dangerous, but thrilling just the same.  As a young mom, my risk taking aptitude went way down. The idea of doing anything that might leave my young children motherless was painful to me. As they have grown, my natural tendency to be a bit of a risk taker has returned.

I enjoy things like roller coasters and white water rafting.  I love flying small planes, scuba dive whenever I get the chance and just recently took up rock climbing.  On my bucket list: skydiving.

But that guy, Felix Baumgartner, who took a free dive from space last year?  The fellow (Nik Wallenda) tight-rope walking across the Grand Canyon?  The young kid, Alex Honnold, who free solo climbs (that's without ropes, my friends) sheer mountain faces? And the famed wing walker, Jane Wicker, who died just yesterday in a fiery crash during an air-show, these folks have a risk taking appetite that perplexes me.

I revisit these thoughts occasionally and yesterday was such an occasion.

Flying into Dayton to meet Rob for a date night:  This was mid-trip for him; he was coming from Newark and had a long layover.  I was off for the weekend.  The planets were in alignment.  And the Pass-Travel Gods were with me.  I had easily gotten seats onto both flights and we were circling Dayton after a short, uneventful flight from Chicago.  Lost in my novel, I hadn't really noticed that we were in a holding pattern until our captain's voice suddenly filled the cabin.   In somber tones, filled with the characteristic pauses and long vowels of a pilot, he shared with us the news that "an incident" had occurred at the Dayton airshow.  The airport was closed.  We were running low on fuel and would have to reroute to Columbus.

I have never been more proud of my fellow travelers.  Generally news of any delay, much less, being rerouted to a different airport, would have been the source of much grumbling.  But that was not the case.  There were questions called up to the flight attendant regarding logistics, but overall the mood was reverent and calm. "An incident".  We had no other news at that time, but we all expected it would be bad.  Once we had landed in Columbus and our captain had more news to share, we'd all fired up our phones to get the news ourselves.

I had a text waiting for me from Rob whose flight from Newark to Dayton had been delayed for the same reason.  "Jane Wicker crashed. F_ _ _".  He'd seen Jane perform, had met and talked with her before. His reaction was not dissimilar from the crew flying my plane.  Sadness and dismay.  A sobering reminder that flying is not risk free.

So, these were the conversations that dominated our time together.  Why? Why do people pursue these extreme sports where one small error means certain death?  Pilots of commercial jets are not risk-averse individuals generally, but they appreciate the value of back-up systems, of having a second set of eyes in the cockpit.  When you are flying a stunt plane upside down, at low-altitude, one miscalculation, one wrong gust of wind and nobody walks away from it. There's no margin of error. The same can be said of the free solo rock climbing.  No ropes. No harness.  2,000 feet up on sheer rock.  I just don't get it.

I love the thrill of adventure sports, but I would never climb without a harness.  There must be something different about someone who can.  Someone who undertakes the extreme, unprotected sport.  Maybe these are the explorers and adventurers of the modern day.  Maybe they are all similar to Alex Honnolt who speaks of the sense of peace that overcomes him when he's on the rock.  But, I can't help but wonder if we are not culpable in some way, just by watching.  Are we no better than those who filled the coliseum to watch the bloodsports?

Maybe it's too many years of working in healthcare, where risk mitigation is always forefront in our minds.  Some things, like healthcare, flying, scuba diving and rock climbing have inherent risk.  If we are going to practice those things, we use our protocols, our checklists, our buddy system, our harness and ropes.  We expect good outcomes because we practice safely.  We don't go out on a wing and just hope that everything works out.

Today, the sadness of yesterday's events lingers.  I never met Jane.  It sounds like she had a very full and vibrant life.  I sure hope that somewhere along the way she had a conversation like the one I had with Rob yesterday.  "I hope I die doing what I love," he told me.  "But not until I'm really old and feeble."  I think of Jane's family, and the family of her pilot, and hope that they know with certainty that their loved ones died doing something that they loved.