It is every pilot’s worst nightmare to lose their medical certificate. Outside of achieving ratings, a valid medical is the gatekeeper for a flying career. And rightfully so with regard to the safety of flight, but it also a privilege to hold one from a life wellness standpoint. From personal experience, I lost mine after undergoing a necessary medical procedure. Thankfully, after a recovery period and enduring the FAA’s medical re-approval gauntlet, I regained my ticket to ride. But during the process, combined with some personal soul searching, I learned there are several factors to consider toward your longevity as a conscientious professional pilot.
Relationships, career demands, lifestyle choices, self-inflicted wounds can all contribute and dictate your ability to either keep or lose your current FAA medical class status – whether you fly for pleasure or for a career. In my case, traveling and flying around the sky while someone else was covering the airplane, gas and travel expenses was indeed a privilege. However, your body’s health can often take a veiled jump seat as you hurl yourself through the earth’s atmosphere to various destinations on an unpredictable and rigorous schedule.
Though part of the job (of which some think is incredibly glamorous), there is a physical toll that you will pay for the opportunity to see and experience the world at large if you are not cognitively aware of the potential IED’s set in your path: flying on multiples sides of the clock; successive daily pressure cycles; adverse weather or equipment issues; long duty days; minimal exercise; improper diet; sleep deprivation; sitting for hours on end; mission stresses; family demands. These are all causative effects on your mind and body’s wellbeing and play a huge role in the fabric of your life. Think of yourself as a growing tree and work and life circumstances (plus personal choices) act as an ax that chip away at your structure little by little as time goes on. How do you handle and even minimize the chipping?
In my case, I wish my former employer never gave me a credit card and an open expense account. I was no model image of the most health-conscious human, and when combined with entertaining customers, health-centric choices were not at the forefront. When my grease low light or BBQ deficiency annunciator would illuminate, I admittedly would travel on my stomach with sometimes reckless abandon. It does not help that there are so many unique cuisines and places to eat when you’re on the road. I occasionally tried to be “good” but for the most part was oblivious to what was best for my body. Let’s just say I affronted diet and exercise with an attitude of “I’ll be better tomorrow – maybe.”
After 20 years of this carefree attitude and passing physicals, I felt a little off one day. It was just a momentary dull tinge ache in my upper left chest that I attributed to schlepping passenger’s large square heavy bags and fitting them into small rounded holes. A few weeks later, I had similar pain, but it went away just as quickly. This occurred on and off for several months, but my tone-deaf brain failed to see the ramifications.
Then one night at home, the same dull ache came back with a vengeance and didn’t go away as quickly. Finally concerned, I told my wife about it, and she immediately said we’re going to the hospital. I protested and urged her to take me back to the house because the pain was gone before we left the neighborhood. With a look of stern yet concerned indignation, she thankfully did not heed my plea and knew exactly which hospital in town had the best cardiac facilities (evidently, her natural instinct she knew this was coming).
Upon hospital admission, like a Hot Section Inspection, I was thoroughly probed and prodded. Interestingly, the EKG treadmill test at first showed pretty normal. But after what seemed to be an eternity to reach a target heart rate, the nurse asked me to hurry because her arms were getting tired from holding all the cables hanging off my body. So, Nurse Ratchet increased the incline and speed of the treadmill to full thrust. And then it hit me, and I slammed on the brakes. An immediate sonogram later and I was in surgery. The good news was it was not a heart attack, but I had blockage in three arteries, so stints were in order. Fortunately, no physical damage to the heart according to an enzyme test but I was only functioning on 2 percent blood flow to those arteries. It is amazing I had not already left the planet or stroked out.
Regarding recovery, it was a welcome respite to have a few consecutive days off at first. But, how to get back into the left seat afterward? Per the FAA, you’re grounded for a minimum of six months before you can even reapply for a medical. After six months, you have to go in for a medical and knowingly flunk it because you must now check the box “yes” as you are now classified as having “Heart Disease.” So, you fail the exam and what happens next takes you on an attention-grabbing journey to get your health and career back in order. To meet the FAA requirements became my full-time job.
Bureaucracy being what it is, you must have all your medical records documenting the event. Reams of doctor notes, X-rays, MRI’s, EKG test results, blood work and many other tests are required. The FAA requires you to go back to the hospital for another cardiac
catheterization surgery to ensure the first procedure was successful (not negotiable by the way). The procedure is classified as an elective surgery that your insurance might not provide coverage. It is a pass/fail test and your only chance to get your medical re-instated. You are then subject to a perpetual six-month First Class recurrent exam by your personal Flight Surgeon which also requires an EKG where you must reach 150 percent of your target heart rate based upon your age at the time. In other words, a lot of heavy breathing is required.
Additionally, your lifestyle must change and your body be fully recovered before you even apply. In my case, it was around 10 months from the initial event to when I had my medical back in my hands. I was very fortunate as my employer supported me going back to recurrent Flight Safety training. The events did, however, change me for the better. Most prevalent is the valued appreciation of your lifespan and relationships with the people you love. But also, taking care of yourself contributes to remaining active in the career you love. As I sucked up the King Air landing gear on my first flight back at the yoke (something I feared might not ever happen again), I thanked the universe for allowing me passage through it once again.
So, listen to your body. Drop the tree ax. Do all you can to lower your stress levels through mind control and cut the garbage intake. If you feel off, do something about it immediately. The stakes are far too high to play Russian roulette with your health.