Image: YouTube/The Kitchen Doc
Image: YouTube/The Kitchen Doc
Picture the scene: you’re departing on board a China Airlines flight from Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport just before midnight, and like most other passengers you opt to catch up on some sleep before arriving in L.A. But while many travelers drift off dreaming of California, one passenger finds it hard to relax – and with good reason. For this individual happens to be in the third trimester of her pregnancy, and now, half a dozen hours into the flight, her waters have just broken.
It’s certainly not the kind of thing you expect to happen on a 19-hour long-haul flight from Taiwan to Los Angeles, but it was exactly the scene that greeted passengers on October 8, 2015.
Indeed, when crewmembers noticed that something wasn’t right with the Taiwanese woman’s abdominal area, they put out an announcement on the aircraft’s intercom in the hope that there might be a doctor traveling with them.
Fortunately, there was. Angelica Zen specializes in pediatric internal medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and she was returning from her honeymoon in Bali on that day. Zen probably hadn’t expected to be back at work quite so soon.
Her first thought on responding to the call was that the passenger was likely suffering from motion sickness or a simple virus. Little did she know that the true cause of the woman’s pain was something far more labor intensive – in more ways than one.
“I went to see her, expecting it to be a simple case,” Zen later told UCLA Newsroom. “But when I saw her – she was completely pregnant.”
Zen consulted with the passenger – who is now known only by her last name of Jian – and quickly determined that the regular bouts of sharp pain she was experiencing was a sign she had gone into labor.
The pilot, learning of what was going on in the cabin, gained permission to make an emergency landing at Alaska’s Ted Stevens Anchorage Airport. But they had a race on their hands if this baby was to be born on land and not in the air.
Unfortunately, it became clear that the baby was in no mood to wait, and that the plane wouldn’t reach Alaska in time. It’s at this point that Zen – who had only ever previously assisted other medical professionals in the delivery room – realized she’d have responsibility for overseeing the birth.
“Everything seemed surreal, especially since I had just woken up,” she said afterward. “I thought, ‘This is so weird.’ This is definitely not in my job description.”
Zen decided that Jian must be moved from her relatively small space in first class to the main cabin, where she asked for a series of adjoined seats to be cleared.
The flight crew leapt into action by constructing an improvised covering for Jian and sourced scissors, sterilized gloves and clamps from the plane’s medical kit. Oh, and plenty of paper towels.
Remarkably, the majority of passengers remained asleep during the baby’s birth – a process that ended up taking around three and a half hours. Indeed, rather than arriving into the world, this baby girl arrived very much above it.
Some of those who stayed awake burst into a round of applause on hearing a healthy cry – no doubt out of relief as much as joy. These were emotions with which Zen was by now very much familiar.
“I was so relieved when the baby came out,” she recalled. “We didn’t have any equipment on the plane to monitor the baby’s heart rate, so I had no idea what the baby was going through. When she came out crying and looking very vigorous and pink, I was very relieved.”
When the plane landed in Alaska a half hour later, mother and baby were taken swiftly to hospital to recover from their high-altitude ordeal – which, happily, had no lasting effects for either of them.
The plane’s other passengers, meanwhile, traveled to California after a brief refueling, arriving in Los Angeles just 180 minutes behind schedule.
One of them, Willie Tipp, told UCLA Newsroom that witnessing the baby’s birth had been quite overwhelming. “I’ve never seen a baby born before,” he said. “The whole time I was thinking, ‘This is the kind of stuff that happens in the movies.’”
If this were a movie, though, Jian would have simply carried her newborn baby girl toward a very happy ending. Sadly, that’s not exactly what happened.
Two weeks later Jian had been accused of hiding the extent of her pregnancy in order to earn U.S. citizenship, and it was reported that she was sent back home without her child. The baby was, however, granted an American citizenship.