Food Poisoning at 30,000 Feet: Welcome Back To Work
How does food poisoning on a 7-hour flight sound? Did I mention it was after a 3-hour delay?
It was every bit as good as it sounds, and more.
You all know how much I love my job, but boy oh boy my last 4-day trip got off to a rough start. I sometimes feel it’s my duty to let you guys in on the real world of flight attendant life, to show the less glamorous side, even the gross side. I talk about the worst passengers, working for free during boarding (and sits and delays), and even my sporadic takeoff anxiety. I want to be as honest as possible, and amid my glowing reviews of this life, the kick-ass layovers, the flight benefits, and the amazing people I meet, at the end of the day it’s still a job, and parts of it still suck.
With that being said, Trigger Warning: Talk of vomit & illness. Proceed with care.
Let’s do this.
Just obliviously enjoying a coconut. No idea how bad things are about to get...
Let’s Set The Scene
It was my first trip back after two weeks of vacation and nearly 20 days off. I was refreshed from my time away, and more than that, things hadn’t gone as planned on vacation and I was looking forward to the distraction of work. Maybe I’ll get into that in a separate post some other day, but for now, just know I was happy to get back to flying. I had a 20-hour LA layover followed by 24 hours in Fort Lauderdale, and though I knew the flight to Florida would be a special kind of hell, I told myself it would be worth it. So much sun! So much downtime!
On the day my trip started, I woke up at 4 in the morning at my parents’ house in Maine. I crept around getting ready, trying not to disturb anyone, and was out of the house by 5 on my long but peaceful ride to the airport. I got to my gate on time, met my crew, who all seemed lovely, and we got ready to board our flight and go. But we weren’t going. Boarding time came and went, and we were told there was a small maintenance issue, a fuel leak, that made using the airplane questionable.
Three and a half hours and an aircraft swap later, we were boarded up and ready to go.
Never a dull moment in aviation. (Unfortunate, because I love dull moments.)
This would have been plenty of excitement for the day, especially for my first day back to work, but don’t you worry, there was more to come. Shortly into the flight a small child was vomiting in one of the back lavatories, assisted by his dad. None of my business, kids puke all the time.
The thing that made this kid, and his vomiting, special was that it went on and on and on. Hours. This kid puked 10 different times, at least, and that wasn’t the only way the sick was coming out, if you know what I mean. I felt bad for him, of course. He was tiny and there is nothing worse than being sick on a plane. Unfortunately, instead of vomiting in the toilet, where most normal people do it, he was instead throwing up in the sink… and all over the bathroom.
This is what caused us to have to lock off one of the lavatories, leaving us with 50% less bathroom availability for the same number of customers. It was a full flight and the one functioning bathroom in the back became a revolving door. The line stretched down the aisle, people waited and waited, and when one emerged, another stepped in. This might sound like a “who cares” kind of thing, and at its core it is. But every flight attendant knows what an inop lav (inoperative lavatory) means. It means crowding. It means people standing around your galley. It means even less personal space than normal. It means your flight attendant duties are hard to accomplish—because you can’t get into the aisle. It just makes everything a bit more hectic and a bit more annoying.
Visual representation of my first day back at work.
The Real Tragedy
What made this unpleasant arrangement worse was that early on in our flight I also started feeling sick. Great.
At first I thought it was the amount of black coffee and espresso sloshing around in my stomach without sufficient food to absorb it. I considered my 4am wakeup, how little sleep I’d gotten, and the fact that this was all following two weeks of vacation and two long, stressful days of travel. Have you ever been so tired you felt sick to your stomach? I have. I am not prone to getting sick, so these explanations assuaged any worry I might have had. I figured I’d be nauseous for a few minutes, drink some water, give it some time, and eventually everything would be fine.
But things would not be fine.
Instead, I would get progressively sicker. Nausea would fill my belly and make me dizzy. It would make my mouth so dry I thought my lips would crack, would make speaking difficult, for fear of “losing my lunch”. (That’s in quotes because I didn’t eat lunch, too sick!) A pit of pain in the center of my abdomen, between my lower ribs, reminded me of the time I got food poisoning from an airport salad in Bogota, Colombia. A small circle of fire, right in the middle; So different from the lower-belly cramps I’ve experienced for one reason or another, different too than the bloating, about-to-pop feeling that flying can sometimes induce. What it felt like, really, was a hangover. The bad kind that comes after drinking way too much cheap liquor and eating way too little food.
The real tragedy was this poor, underpaid flight attendant suffering for 7 hours. 🙁
The Bad Old Days
When I was in my teens and early twenties, I was a terrible drinker. I didn’t know how to sip and enjoy an alcoholic beverage, so instead I slugged shots of straight vodka or ::shiver:: Bacardi, and chased it with a sip of soda. It makes my teeth clench and my stomach turn just thinking about it now. And in those bad drinking years, every single time I drank, I threw up. Not at night, that was only once in a while. Instead, the next day is when I’d pay the price for my drinking. Wild, raging hangovers would wreck me. They would begin with splitting headaches upon opening my eyes and soon the nausea would kick in. If I was very, very lucky, I would vomit in the morning. But often my hangovers would sit with me, crushing me, for hours, whole days, sometimes. I would curl up in a little ball on the bathroom floor or prop myself up, face in toilet, willing the storm to pass. Eventually, I’d retch and cry and repeat the process until all the poison was out of me and I was exhausted. I’d leave the bathroom, sweaty, red-faced, wet-eyed, victorious. Ready for a nap, alive again to tell the tale.
I don’t drink anymore. Believe it or not, I managed to get through those horrific hangovers and graduated, in my mid-twenties, to become a more normal kind of drinker—the social kind that can function after a night out on the town. Still, it wasn’t serving me, and so I gave it up three years ago.
It was not a hangover I suffered on my flight to LA last week, but the thing that harkened back to those dark days was the intensity and the helplessness I felt. The seeming impossibility of solving the problem for myself. I was, sick on my jumpseat, as I was back in those days, on the bathroom floor. Powerless. A prisoner in my own raging body. I tried to make myself throw up, of course. At some point in the flight I would have done anything to feel better. But just as when I was a teenager, sticking fingers down my throat in hopes of quicker relief, I couldn’t do it. I tried and tried. It would not come. My body is stubborn sometimes. That, or it is vindictive, waiting until I’ve really learned a lesson to allow any respite. One would think that just being inside of an airplane lavatory while sick would be enough to make you hurl. But in my case, unfortunately, it was not.
Thinking of all the time I wasted hungover.
The Unsatisfying Thing
So, I waited. I waited and waited. I kept myself calm but did very little work. In moments of less intense nausea, I did my best to contribute, addressing a customer issue, or picking up trash. But mostly, I stayed in my jumpseat, in the cave of the back galley, wishing we had two bathrooms, willing myself to feel better, and praying I would not have to throw up into a trash bag sitting right there in public view.
I believed I had food poisoning because of the familiar feeling and because I didn’t know what else could explain this strange turn of events. A good deal of my sick time was spent thinking about the things I’d eaten: A banana several hours before, on the way to work, a croissant, and a double shot of espresso with one creamer packet. No obvious killers here. To muddy the waters even further, two of my coworkers had also consumed croissants and espresso from the same source. This was mind-blowing.
Save for the unfortunate side effects of alcohol mentioned above, I have a strong stomach. I like to joke with people that “I could eat rotten meat and not get sick.” This hyperbole is only made starker by the fact that I don’t eat meat at all.
The unsatisfying thing is that I’ll never know what caused me to be so sick at work that day, my first day back. The way that food poisoning, and sicknesses like it, work is that a small amount of bacteria makes it somewhere it shouldn’t be—like your mouth. It could have been on one croissant and not the others. I could have a sensitivity to potable water, which I never drink. (I was desperate after too little sleep and a 3-hour delay to start the day.) I could have had a rotten creamer packet. Perhaps I touched something icky—not hard to do on an airplane—and failed to wash my hands before eating. It could have been any number of tiny things that resulted in a big reaction.
Perhaps it wasn’t food poisoning at all. The coincidence of having another very ill passenger on our plane is not lost on me. A stomach bug? One that came on suddenly and left just as quickly? My coworkers jokingly asked if I could be pregnant. “Why not?” I replied, struggling to keep my head up, but wit still intact, “Mary did it.”
For now, my in-flight illness will remain a mystery to me. Unsatisfying, indeed, but that’s the way the cookie crumbles.
I swear I have a strong stomach
The flight took seven hours. It was more than three hours late. The little boy continued to cycle between vomiting, shivering chills, and sleep, and I continued to wish I was home alone, in a hotel room, or anywhere private. My coworkers were angels, checking on me frequently to make sure I was okay, and picking up the slack of the work I wasn’t doing.
When the double ding went off, indicating our final descent into LA, I could have cried tears of joy. I didn’t though, my body had something else in mind. I stood in the back galley, six hours after falling ill, and thought “It’s time.”
This time would be successful, no fingers required, the purge I needed, and sweet relief would flood my body where all else had left it. I have not been so thrilled to be bent over a toilet in many, many years.
I landed holding a trash bag, just in case, but did not need it—not in my jumpseat and not in the 20-minute ride to the hotel. Upon check-in, I only wanted two things: To lay in the tub with hot water pouring out of the showerhead, washing over my limp, defeated body (a throwback remedy from my hangover days), and to sleep. The shower was hot and long. I crawled into my king size bed and ate a small bag of pretzels, which would constitute my lunch and dinner for the day. I turned on my audiobook, and slid on my eye mask, and went into a deep sleep for more than 12 hours.
I worried when I woke up, dazed and in a fog, that I might not be fully healed. But with water, and a second hot shower, and small careful sips of coffee, I managed to feel just fine by the time I left my room.
Pay no attention to the sick flight attendant
Will You Look at That?
I used to feel, back in my late twenties, when hangovers were rarer but still very much a part of life, that going to work actually healed the sickness. Feeling sick on a plane is terrible, but something about the routine of it all, the mindless, rote motions—setting up carts, walking down the aisle, handing out water bottles—made it almost possible to forget how your body felt. And if you could push it to the back of your mind and forget you were sick, then eventually you wouldn’t be sick. It might be something like how parents get through sickness when they have small children to care for: They must, so they do.
But on this particular day at work, there were to be no shortcuts or tricks of the mind to quicken my misery. My body had to cycle through the motions, in all their excruciating waves to get to the other side. I sat thinking, while rocking myself to quiet oblivion on the jumpseat, that if I made it through this day at work, I would be very, very impressed.
And will you look at that? I did it.
A four am wakeup. A two-hour drive. Three and a half hours delayed. A gate change, a catering fiasco. A sick passenger, an inoperative lav. A long, lingering bout of illness, a taste of the bad old days.
But I got through. I went on to work three more days on the trip, and things got progressively better each day. I was my normal self by day 3, joking and laughing with my co-workers, singing in the galley. I got a beach day, a run through a state park, and plenty of time to sleep each night. I felt healthy and well and very, very grateful. For my crew, who picked up the slack, who encouraged, and who were good, solid, pleasant people to be around. For my return to good health, of course. And for the anomaly of this illness reminding me just how lucky I am to never, ever wake up hungover; To not feel the longing for relief, the magnet-force of a toilet bowl beckoning me, or the instinct to bargain and promise “Never again.”
There is no worse place to be sick
Maybe I had to pay the piper. I’ve been traveling for the last six months, using my flight benefits to gallivant around the globe—sight-seeing, romancing, and eating all the best foods. Perhaps I needed a storm cloud to dot my otherwise sunny skies, just to know that life is real, to feel deeply the warranted appreciation. My life is so good that truly, if I had to be knocked down a peg to keep things in line, I’ll accept that.
I hope this never happens again. And I’m looking forward to all the boring, easy, happy days at work that I so enjoy.
If this is dark lining to my otherwise silvery life, then I guess I'll take it.
My illness passed, and it was a happy ending for me. But that’s not quite the end of the story.
It seems like the week was fated to go this way. The day after my sick day, on our flight from LA to Miami, we had a passenger vomit all over the front of her shirt and immediately fall asleep afterward. It likely had to do with alcohol consumption, based on the looks of things. She was in a middle seat on a full flight, and the two people sitting beside her were horrified and very grateful when we moved them. The girl’s friends, however, also looking like they’d hit up the airport bar, picked a fight with us when we decided not to serve them any (more) alcohol. They wrote down my name, threatening to call and complain. I wonder if they ever did.
Just now, as I finish up this post on my way to Atlanta, a girl rushed into my back galley holding a face mask full of orange vomit. I had to jump up and grab her a bag so she could continue. She was more gracious than the girl in LA and less messy than the little boy on my first flight from Boston. And lucky for her, she healed far more quickly than I did. I helped her get cleaned up, and when she apologized, I told her honestly: “Don’t worry. It happens all the time.”