Tashi Tshering (43), the patient at the heart of the Druk Air deplaning controversy passed away on Thursday 1st October at 8 pm in Bangkok Hospital after fighting for his life for the past few days.
Yesterday, this paper talked to the daughter Dolka Tenzin (17) and the wife Tenzin Dolma (40) both of whom were in a highly emotional state but agreed to talk in the interest of such potential future patients.
Both the daughter and mother said that they had forgiven the pilot Captain Chimi who had deplaned Tashi Tshering on 25th September.
Dolka Tenzin said, “A few hours before my father expired Captain Chimi called to say that he was extremely sorry for what had happened. He said that it was an unfortunate incident and he would have been in trouble either way for whatever decision he took and he really had no other choice. The Captain offered to help in organizing Druk Air tickets and passage for the family while coming back from Bangkok.”
The family thanked the pilot and said they already had made arrangements with Bhutan Airlines.
More than any number of press releases or explanations from Druk Air it was this simple personal apology and offer of help from the pilot that the family appreciated.
Dolka said that things would have been much better for the family, already in deep trauma, if the Druk Air Corporation instead of issuing an incorrect press release had just issued an apology.
Both Dolka and her mother said that while a father and husband has passed away they would like to appeal for making systemic improvements in how such cases are handled and also how such other similar patients are treated by airlines in the future.
Dolka said that airlines like Druk Air should have a system in place to ensure that any objections to medical patients are made well before a patient has boarded the flight.
She said not only was her father and her family deplaned along with their luggage even as they broke down, the Druk Air station manager at Paro made it abundantly and directly clear that the patient could not fly anywhere with such a smell.
She said that her father became very depressed after the whole incident and his appetite really went down.
“After we reached home he refused to take food and he also bled very heavily,” said Dolka.
For two mornings after the incident the father who had speech problems due to his aliment made hand motions of a plane flying every morning to his daughter and wife.
Even before the Druk Air incident her father believed that there was hope for him in Bangkok and he made hand gestures of a plane flying out.
Dolka said that the solution of chartered flight taken on the third day on 27th September evening was very expensive and there should be options of special discount flight or other cheaper arrangements for such future patients.
She said that an incorrect perception had gone out that the family is very well off. She said that she is very grateful to Henry Nung a Vietnamese who paid USD 20,000 for the USD 48,000 chartered Bhutan Airlines flight including the passengers who on their own initiative raised around USD 2,000.
The remaining USD 26,000 which comes to Nu 1.7 mn around was raised by Dolka’s own family with help from her other family members like uncles and aunts. She denied the Druk Air press release statement which had said that a discount had been offered.
Even though her father’s life could not be saved the medical bills were very high at 933,000 Thai Bhat or Nu 1.67 mn according to the family.
The amount would finish all and any family savings that the family has left said Dolka.
The family stays in a rented apartment on the sixth floor of a building above the Memorial Chorten and their only source of income is a clothes shop titled Lungta Fashion in Thimphu which is also rented.
Tashi Tshering leaves behind a wife who has to manage the shop on her own, Dolka who finished high school but took a one year break before looking for a college to help her father and a younger sister (11) who goes to school.
Dolka’s father originally wanted his daughter to become a doctor but the daughter will be looking for medical scholarships in nursing.
The mother said that they were only told the Bangkok Hospital was good but they did not know it was so expensive.
However, the family was desperate to do all they could to save the life of Tashi Tshering.
Tenzin Dolma said that she has asked her daughter to stay away from Facebook as her daughter was crying and disturbed.
“My young daughter in trying to defend her late father has gone through a lot. I don’t want her to be disturbed and now she should instead focus on looking for a college and doing her studies,” said the mother.
Both Dolka and her mother said that now they do not want to complain against anyone, put anyone in trouble or seek compensation but their main request is that other such patients should not be made to go through the same in the future.
The mother said that all kinds of people have to use Druk Air be they healthy or sick or the powerful and the meek.
“My request to the airlines is to also help the poor and meek patients in the future and make it more convenient for them as many sick people from Bhutan have to fly out for treatment be it to Bangkok or other places like Calcutta and Vellore,” the mother said.
The Bangkok Hospital is preparing the body of Tashi Tshering for transport and Bhutan Airlines has given free complementary tickets for the nine family members and will also be transporting the body for free.
Dolka said that contrary to the Druk Air’s claims of smell and safety the Bhutan Airlines staff said the smell was only near the patient and did not even permeate in the Business class section leave along the whole aircraft.
Druk Air speaks
The request of the family for a systemic improvement may not fall on deaf years as the Druk Air management headed by the acting Managing Director Rinzin Dorji is working on developing a medical form that sick patients planning to travel on Druk Air have to fill.
He said Druk Air also discussed and then wrote to their aviation doctor Tashi Wangdi in Thimphu to ask if he could authenticate medical certificates in the future instead of any doctor issuing it.
Rinzin Dorji said that by putting in place such systems Druk Air wants to avoid any such incidents in the future.
The acting MD said that even international airlines had such medical forms for sick passengers and it would have to be partly adapted to the local conditions.
The main aim of Druk Air is to ensure that patients unfit to fly are informed at the ticketing phase itself instead of having to be deplaned or go through any unpleasantness.
Rinzin Dorji said that in case of such patients the only solution at the moment is special chartered flights and in certain cases Druk Air would be willing to offer discounts.
The acting MD stressed that the pilot had no choice due to the inconvenience caused to other passengers and under international safety rules the pilot had the final say in an aircraft.
He also acknowledged the unique nature of the current problem as normally international airline safety rules only talk about pilots having the power to deplane unruly, drunk or aggressive passengers. There was one recent international incident of a passenger with foul body odor being removed but that was since the person refused to take a bath and clean up.
The Druk Air incident is the first known international incident where a medical patient has been deplaned based on complaints from nearby passengers.
The acting Druk Air MD expressed his condolences to the family for the death of the patient.
The Bhutan Airlines MD Phala Dorji also said that the only current solution for such patients was to charter a special flight.
Health Ministry’s inputs
The Health Secretary Dr Dorji Wangchuk said that the Health Ministry sends out referral patients for treatment mainly to Calcutta and Vellore but in most cases they are sent by road or train. He said the ministry does not make any referrals to Bangkok.
He said that only in severe cases of life and death, where the patient is in a severe condition or cannot travel by road, then the government pays to fly them out using Druk Air.
The MoH in those cases tells Druk Air the numbers of seats required since patients lying down would require multiple seats along with possible oxygen tanks and in such cases the ministry also sends an escort along.
The MoH has not yet encountered any similar case in its dealing with Druk Air so far.
The secretary, however, said that in the future serious patients with strong smells be it certain types of cancer, gaseous gangrene and etc cannot be ruled out.
On the particular case the secretary said that the patient had not approached JDWNRH and instead an air worthiness certificate had been given by the private doctor. The secretary said that as per the Bhutan Medical and Health Council guidelines only a government doctor could issue such a certificate.
The health secretary said that ideally Druk Air should look at the medical certificate carefully before issuing tickets.
In case of life and death issues for certain referral conditions that come with smell, the health secretary said the ministry does not have any power to impose on Druk Air which is responsible for aircraft safety. He said though it has not happened so far the ministry may even have too look at chartering flights in such cases.
The Bhutan Civil Aviation Authority (BCAA) which regulates airlines has asked for Druk Air for a report on the issue (see separate story on page 1). Karma Wangchuk the Director of the Department of Air Transport (DoAT), a separate body that looks mainly after airports said that the DoAT can do very little as it is the airline the sells the tickets and in the aircraft it is the pilot that decides.
He said in the airports people can only be stopped for not going through the security and luggage checks. He pointed out that in the big confines of an airport it would not be possible to see if a patient was worthy of air travel.
However, the Director also pointed out that while pilots can deplane people on genuine grounds it also does not mean that anybody can be deplaned on no grounds. He said in such cases the BCAA would come into the picture to protect the passenger’s rights.