I woke up to the sound of a woman’s scream followed by her uncontrollable sobs on Lufthansa LH 757 earlier today on my way to New York. Her husband was feeling very unwell and she was a mess. She shouted for a doctor a few times and within minutes was surrounded by a small army of medical professionals, hostesses and a steward.
She was panicking but tried to regain control over herself and inform them of his medical history. She knew this would be critical. In her small-town Hindi, she told an Indian air hostess about his asthma, high blood pressure, arterial blockage and the recent angioplasty he had undergone 5 days ago. She broke down towards the end and just wanted them to take care of him. She was afraid of his breathlessness, the sweat all over his face, the fading color of his skin, the discomfort in his chest and more so his inability to communicate with her. His voice was unusually weak and she was afraid of losing him after everything they had been through these past few decades and especially the last week.
By this time, a few concerned passengers had begun to crowd around but were promptly asked to return to their seats by the Lufthansa staff. They knew their job and wanted to make sure their passenger got the best care possible. They knew a life was on the line and they weren’t prepared to take chances. Over the course of the next 30 minutes, the team on LH 757 brought in stethoscopes, blood pressure pumps, nebulizers, aerated beverages, sugary snacks and anything else that would help their passenger feel better. All this while a German steward meticulously filled out paperwork recording the entire ordeal. Corporate policy was working but unobtrusively in the background. An hour flew by and although the man’s situation improved he would continue to be flanked by his wife and the doctor, who had bravely volunteered to help, for the remainder of the flight. They still had 200 odd minutes to make it to Frankfurt.
This is where most organizations and stories would stop but what happened next surprised me. The Indian air hostess who had played a pivotal role in this incident now shifted her attention to the wife and reminded her to stay strong for her husband’s sake. I could see shared language and values play their part as a bond was forged. These principles don’t come from collecting paychecks or following standard operating procedures, but building a culture where peers inspire peers to raise the bar. Over the course of the conversation, she was able to gather that the wife was diabetic and so immediately brought her fruits. The sentiment was not lost and as the woman bit into an apple, the two of them shared anxious smiles and some much-needed relief. Her husband’s feet were on her lap. He was warmer now and as she leaned in to check on him I could only marvel at who we all become when we deeply care for those we love, our jobs and the opportunities we are given.
This was not only a masterclass in servant leadership but of empathy as well. After working through the initial chaos, Lufthansa staff consistently demonstrated a culture of genuine care and were prepared to do whatever they could to save and serve passengers 36E and 36F. They were unafraid to grapple with the difficult realities of the situation and always kept listening so they could serve better. This is what all of us should aspire for in the work we do because this is how a legacy is built.