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An unexpected source of solace during an in-flight emergency

20 years ago, Kate Baker's then-two year old, Neil, had a seizure while on an airplane. A group of Muslim women surrounded her and comforted her, an experience she never forgot.
Kate Baker
20 years ago, Kate Baker's then-two year old, Neil, had a seizure while on an airplane. A group of Muslim women surrounded her and comforted her, an experience she never forgot.

This story is part of the My Unsung Hero series, from the Hidden Brain team, about people whose kindness left a lasting impression on someone else.

Traveling with a toddler can be exhausting. But rarely is it as harrowing as Kate Baker's experience during a flight twenty years ago. She and her husband, Bob, were heading to Europe with their 2-year-old son, Neil.

"When we got on the plane in New York, all three of us were healthy," she said. "But halfway over the Atlantic Ocean, Neil started to get very warm, and his face was red."

Then Neil began foaming at the mouth. He was having a seizure.

"The flight attendants were going up and down the aisle, asking anyone if they were a doctor, if they could take a look at him," Baker recalled. "No one would come forward. And then the pilot started announcing, 'Is there a doctor on board and should I turn this plane around?' And again, no one came forward."

One of the flight attendants asked her husband, who was holding Neil, if the toddler was still breathing. "Just barely," he replied.

"When I heard those words, I think I must have gone into shock because I couldn't feel anything, and I couldn't speak," Baker said.

Then she noticed three women get out of their seats and approach where she was standing in the aisle. They were Muslim women wearing hijabs, and they came up to her and put their arms around her. They started speaking to Baker in a language that she didn't understand.

"The tone of their voice was so, so soothing, and they stood there with me with their arms around me until the flight attendant told us that we should move to the front of the plane and take a seat up there."

They eventually landed in Amsterdam, and Baker and her husband took Neil to a clinic. Doctors couldn't find anything wrong with him, and by then he appeared to be fine. But they quickly booked another flight home to New Jersey.

They went right to a pediatrician, who discovered that Neil had just had an ear infection. His seizure had probably been due to a rapid spike in his body temperature.

"So Neil was fine. We treated him for the ear infection, and everything was fine."

But she never forgot those women and how supportive they were.

"I grew up in a place where there were no Muslims, very few people of color, and everyone spoke English. So that encounter was very new for me. I will never forget them and what they did for me."

"We may not speak the same language or share the same beliefs or religion, but none of that really matters to me because we can connect on a very deep human level. So if I ever saw those women again, I would just say thank you so much, and I love you."

My Unsung Hero is also a podcast — new episodes are released every Tuesday. To share the story of your unsung hero with the Hidden Brain team, record a voice memo on your phone and send it to myunsunghero@hiddenbrain.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Brigid McCarthy
Tara Boyle is the supervising producer of NPR's Hidden Brain. In this role, Boyle oversees the production of both the Hidden Brain radio show and podcast, providing editorial guidance and support to host Shankar Vedantam and the shows' producers. Boyle also coordinates Shankar's Hidden Brain segments on Morning Edition and other NPR shows, and oversees collaborations with partners both internal and external to NPR. Previously, Boyle spent a decade at WAMU, the NPR station in Washington, D.C. She has reported for The Boston Globe, and began her career in public radio at WBUR in Boston.
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