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Behind Closed Doors: Downtime in Denver
My flight home turned into a really long layover.
Paula Watkins, RN
Publish Date: August 12, 2021   |  Tags:   Opinion Infection Prevention

Outpatient surgery is often compared to aviation because both industries use checklists and crew resource management to avoid catastrophe. Airlines and surgery centers also rely on tight schedules to keep daily operations running, but unexpected turbulence can cause unexpected delays. That was never more evident when I was recently grounded for 27 hours in the Denver International Airport.

Due to a storm in the Mile High area, my original flight home to Arkansas was diverted to Salt Lake City, where we sat on the plane for two hours until finally being cleared to fly … back to Denver. When the unplanned round trip landed back where it began, people around me literally ran for their connecting flights. I wanted to join the stampede, but my achy knee had other ideas. I finally arrived at my assigned gate in time to see the plane taxiing down the tarmac.

The airline’s agent said she could get me on the next available flight — at 9 a.m. the next morning. Of course, she couldn’t guarantee the flight would leave on time as the airline had to work through a backlog of delayed flights. Now I know how patients feel when they’re told the surgical schedule is backed up because the first case of the day didn’t start on time.

I didn’t want to go through the hassle of finding a hotel and decided to spend the night in the airport. With plenty of hours to kill, I watched as the airport’s environmental services crew performed the nighty terminal terminal cleaning. (See what I did there?) They cleaned walls, countertops, tables and chairs with the teamwork and efficiency of a surgery center staff. It was poetry in motion.

Guess what? The 9 a.m. flight was delayed and pushed back throughout the day. I had to change gates four times. After dragging my carry-on to yet another counter, I asked the airline’s agent if she was going to be the one who finally made me cry. Instead, she was sympathetic, informative and friendly, and told me not worry, she’d get me home. That wonderful woman booked me on a flight that finally — mercifully — took off at 5 p.m. and had me home before midnight. 

There was a silver lining to my airport misadventure. It gave me a newfound appreciation for the unsung heroes of the airline industry who often don’t get the respect they deserve. It also gave me more appreciation for surgery’s front desk workers who often bear the brunt of frustrated patients.

I’m now more empathetic for patients who deal with inevitable case delays. They deserve to be constantly updated on the status of their surgery, listened to with compassion and reassured that we’re doing everything in our power to get them to the OR as soon as possible. And hey, at least we don’t keep them overnight. OSM