Posted 6 years 331 days ago ago by Randy Mains
I’ve flown my share of dramatic life-saving helicopter missions in my 45-year aviation career. I’ve even put myself in harm’s way to save the lives of four soldiers pinned down by enemy fire in Vietnam. The most harrowing rescue to date didn’t occur while at the controls of a helicopter, rather it was a byproduct of having been a helicopter air ambulance pilot. The split-second decision I made that day held consequences too dire to contemplate, as I could have easily landed in a Middle Eastern jail charged with murder.
The Gulf Hotel was a 10-minute walk from the Abu Dhabi Aviation housing complex where I was living. After flying seven hours offshore in the oil fields of the Arabian Gulf, my copilot that day, Steve Charles, and I decided to go to the hotel to play tennis. As we entered the pool area we heard a commotion. An East Indian lifeguard was lifting the small, lifeless body of a young Pakistani boy from the deep end.
I was shocked when I witnessed what the lifeguard did next. Holding the unconscious boy around his waist, dangling him upside down like a rag doll, he shook him up and down trying to revive him. It was obvious the hotel lifeguard had no idea what he was doing; if something wasn’t done quickly, the boy would surely die.
Unwilling to stand there and watch the boy lose his life, I reached through the crowd, snatching him from the lifeguard’s arms and placing him on his back. The lifeguard stepped back, probably thankful someone had taken charge.
I did as I had learned in San Diego as a HEMS pilot for the Life Flight program more than a quarter-century earlier when I had taken EMT training. I had never done for real what I was about to attempt to do at that moment—try to resuscitate an unconscious boy, alone, with no help from a doctor or nurse. Knowing there were no good Samaritan laws to protect me, the consequences if I failed were too awful to contemplate.
Turning the boy’s head to one side, I cleared his airway of vomit. I then tilted his head back to open the airway, pinched his nose, and placed my mouth over his. I gave him several quick breaths, and scooped out his mouth for a second time. Then I gave him a few more breaths.
It flashed through my mind (only briefly) that if the resuscitation failed, I’d go to jail. The lifeguard would only have to say in his defense, “This man came out from the crowd and took the boy from me before I could save his life.” By inference, I would be accused of preventing the lifeguard from saving the boy’s life—in effect, killing him. I’d most certainly be tried for murder. What was certain was that if I allowed the lifeguard to continue, the boy would die.
I felt for a carotid pulse…nothing. I put my ear to his chest. To my great relief, I could hear a faint heartbeat. I continued breathing for him, thinking: Come on, come on, breathe, breathe, breathe! I continued my cadence, breathing for the boy, expelling air from my lungs into his, checking that he still had a pulse, doing what I’d been trained to do half a world away. My every nerve ending was alive with anticipation … and I was silently praying.
Several minutes passed. Then the most extraordinary thing happened. The boy let out a small cough, almost like a convulsion. Pool water flowed from his mouth. A few more coughs ensued, expelling more water. Suddenly to my great relief, and to the relief of the crowd, the boy’s eyes blinked open.
I placed him on his side in the recovery position, covered him with a towel, and stayed by his side until his mom and dad appeared. They’d been in the changing room and had not been watching their son. I told them to take the boy immediately to the hospital emergency room, which they did.
The crowd dispersed. Steve and I walked to the tennis court. On the way over I said to him, “If the kid had died, I don’t want to think about what the consequences would have been.”
“I had a plan, Randy,” he told me. “If the kid had died, I was going to rush you to the housing site, collect your passport, money, and any belongings you could quickly throw together, and book you on the first available flight anywhere out of the country before the police could catch up with you.”
After playing tennis, I was walking alone in the dark to the housing site when the full gravity of what had taken place suddenly hit me. Recalling the ordeal caused an overwhelming wave of emotion to wash over me. I’d saved many lives flying a helicopter over the years, but never in such a hands-on, personal way.
Becoming philosophical, I began to wonder what influence on people’s lives the boy might have when he becomes a man. Like the butterfly effect, what if I had just saved the life of a future doctor who would save the lives of others? Or might he become a researcher who would discover a cure for cancer or some other disease plaguing mankind? Perhaps he’d turn out to be a great composer, inventor, popular artist or writer. How many children would he have? How would his children impact the lives of others … their children’s children … and so on?
My emotions caused an unexpected release. Tears of indescribable joy and relief began streaming down my face while I experienced the most precious of emotions: The knowledge that by my own two hands I had saved the life of another human being. Could there be any greater gift? It was a gift I never would have received had I not become an air ambulance pilot in San Diego.
About Randy: Randy Mains is an author, public speaker, and a
CRM/AMRM consultant who works in the helicopter industry after a long
career of aviation adventure. He currently serves as chief CRM/AMRM
instructor for Oregon Aero. He may be contacted at