Brace for impact

I watched the movie Sully when it was released back in September last year. I was keen to see the movie, from what I knew at the time it was an amazing incident but the movie seemed to look at the investigation that followed as much as the actual event.

There is a strong link between aircraft safety and healthcare. Our surgical checklist is one strong example but the growing work on teamwork, human factors and a just culture have all been embedded in the aircraft industry for a long time. Before flight 1549, Captain Sullenberger had taken part in many investigations and was established as an expert in aircraft safety. I was keen to learn and know more about this man and consider more ways as to how the healthcare workforce can build on what others are doing.

I wasn't prepared for the full scale panic attack mid way through the film. I have written to you briefly before recalling the time I was on a ship that sank, my escape from the ship and my recovery from that event. I can tell my story well, with humour and quite succintly. I haven't hadflashbacks or nightmare for some time. So it took me by complete surprise to be hit with a flashback and panic attack in this movie. This was a plane movie, not a ship story. I wasn't expecting it. I had the full heart racing, dry mouth, arms tingling and a very strong desire to get the hell out of the cinema. I had a clear and frightening flashback to being trapped on the ship with the water splashing at the windows.

I didn't leave (I guess my desire to watch the movie override the 'leave now' feeling). Recognising what was happening, I acknowledged the memory, decided to smile at the surprise, took some deep slow breathes and focused on the movie.

It is a brilliant movie but I didn't think I was quite done with it. On one of my usual second hand bookshop trawls I came across the book that Captain Sully wrote shortly after the landing on the Hudson: Highest Duty - My Search for What Really Matters
Oh my, is this the most page turning, emotional and incredible book. It is a well crafted book that leads you slowly to the forced water landing on the Hudson and gives you a full picture of Sully as a man, the experiences he has had that lead to that moment, where he called on all his training, experience and knowledge to land the plane safely. It's not all about flying, it's about family, friends, choices, self knowledge and teamwork.

There are very strong analogies to be made with health care. As I read about the changes that have occurred in flying and the way that pilots are viewed, I wondered about how we view surgeons today and the good and bad aspects of this. This idea interplays with the concepts of knowing who is in charge - 'my airplane' - so it's clear who is flying the plane. And when everything else looks like it is falling apart - remember to fly the plane. Sully wrote the foreword to this book which is a brilliant example of all that healthcare can learn from the airline industry - literally beyond the checklist.

Making a difference was a big theme that resonated with me throughout the book along with the focus on teamwork and not being a hero. Sully never saw himself as a hero and never thought he saved the lives of all onboard the flight by himself. Along with the cabin crew and his co-pilot there were the ferry captains and the numerous agencies that were involved in rescuing and caring for those on the plane.

In some very emotional letters that he received after the event one in particular stood out to me. The man writing agreed that Sully was no hero but that he stands as a reminder and encouragement for us all who toil diligently, responsibly and ethically in obscurity everyday. We will be ready when the test comes and we do make a difference.

There are so many great moments in this book, I could go on forever with examples. I was struck by his openness, honesty and vulnerability. This is a man who knows himself and understands what that means to him and to those around him. That is the starting point for us all. To be open and vulnerable. To build that trust with our teams and those we work alongside. To acknowledge we are all in this together and when we have to 'brace for impact' we will work as a team and all make it. Sully stands out as a true example of great leadership that we can all learn from.

After reading the book I wanted to re-watch the movie, it was even better this time. The book does not focus on the investigation afterwards which is a big part of the movie but does let you know that the fact that it was a mid week flight would have helped and that only 11 of the 150 passengers read the emergency briefing card. It very closely follows the facts as portrayed in the book and snippets in the movie have a greater meaning from the stories told in the book. No panic attack on the second viewing but I know that my own emergency landing shaped me and will continue to be part of me and that is OK.

Watch the movie trailer here

Try as I might, the perfect TED talk to match this email isn't out there (yet) but this playlist is full of incredible uplifting stories to match that of flight 1549


Katie Quinney