Back in 2000, I was building a patio beneath my elevated deck in Virgina. I know what you are thinking: “What does that have to do with aviation? This is a flying blog, right?” Keep reading… it is relevant… especially if you are familiar with the FAA’s stringent medical requirements.
I’m handy, but not a professional carpenter by any stretch of the imagination. I was using a sledgehammer to drive the stakes into the ground that would support the frame of the patio. I was kneeling to finish tapping one of the stakes. My left hand stabilized the stake against the frame while my right gripped the hammer up near the head. I raised the hammer just a little, forced it down, and slipped off the stake. My index finger suddenly became sandwiched between the pressure treated 2×12 frame and the head of the descending sledgehammer. It was not a pleasant experience.
The next day, I commuted to Newark. My finger was a little sore, but I assessed that it would not restrict me from performing any of my 727 flight engineer duties. I was still fairly new at United, and it seemed pointless to dip into my sick bank for a tender finger. For the first three days of the trip, I had no trouble turning all the dials and flipping the switches on the panel. On the last layover, I noticed it was still a little bit swollen. I decided to have the doctor look at it when I returned home to Virginia.
As hard as it is to imagine, I did not own a cell phone. On my trips, I still used an 800 number to call home to the family. So, while on the phone with my wife, I asked her to make an appointment to have my finger examined. She called, told the receptionist I hit my hand with a sledgehammer, and wanted to visit when I got home from my trip. They were able to fit me in the next morning.
I walked into the doctor’s office, signed the sheet, and settled into a chair in the waiting area. Almost immediately, a very concerned nurse came to fetch me.
“How are you doing?” she asked with a genuineness that seemed like she really cared.
“I’m doing alright.” That was the truth.
“We were very concerned when we heard about your injury.” I was glad she had looked at my chart and knew why I was visiting. But, “concerned?” Surely, these people saw disease and death on a daily basis. I had only hurt a finger.
I stepped up on the scale for the obligatory weigh-in.
“Did you lose consciousness?”
“Ah, no.” I laughed a little as I began to think she may be over dramatizing it just a bit.
“And, I understand you went to work after the injury?”
“Yes, it didn’t really hurt. I’m just concerned about the swelling.”
“What do you do for work?” she inquired.
“I’m an airline pilot.” (Yes, I know… I was a flight engineer. But, at that point in my life, my young ego demanded I say pilot. If questioned further, I would reveal I was the guy who sat sideways behind the pilots.)
“What!? And you went flying after getting hit in the HEAD with a sledgehammer!?!?”
“Huh!?” I did not even try to hide my surprise.
She explained: “It says here in your chart you were hit in the head with a sledgehammer.”
I started to laugh. When my wife made the appointment, the receptionist must have heard “head” instead of “hand.” No wonder they were so concerned.
I held up my hand and pointed to my finger. The two of us laughed for five minutes as we both imagined an airline pilot staggering to work after getting clocked in the noggin with a sledgehammer.
The doc had already heard the story by the time he entered the exam room. After we shared another good laugh, he determined that my finger was just a little bruised.
When the laughter subsided, I realized there was some very incriminating paperwork on file in the office. I explained my concerns to the staff and insisted that all my records be changed to reflect that I had not sustained a nearly fatal blow to the head. They understood and changed all references from “head” to “hand.”
It healed quickly after the visit.
Over the last eleven years, I’ve told the story to others when discussing medical requirements for our job. We’ve known many who have lost their medical certificates due to heart conditions, diabetes, and various other scary injuries and ailments. But, so far, still no word of a pilot being grounded for actually being hit in the head with a sledgehammer.