Medically Disqualified

DVTA month ago, after a three-day drive to northern Maine, I developed a pain in my right calf similar in feeling to a Charlie-horse. Stretching didn’t alleviate this discomfort. For the next several days it was less noticeable until gone altogether. Then a week later it returned and didn’t go away.

A doppler scan discovered I had a deep vein thrombosis (DVT), or to us non-medical professionals, a blood clot. Blood thinners for four months and I should be good to go.

Since I wasn’t given bed rest, or some other restrictive lifestyle, this diagnosis didn’t concern me. But my wife, a nurse practitioner, and the Federal Aviation Association (FAA) were. Should the clot dislodge and move to my brain, heart, or lung I would be in deep doo-do. If I didn’t die, I might be severely impaired the rest of my life. Because of this threat, the FAA will not let me pilot an aircraft until another doppler scan reveals the clot has dissolved or stabilized, and my blood work shows I don’t have a clotting problem.

This is the first time in thirty-six years of flying that I have been prevented from piloting an aircraft. It was a freedom I had taken for granted as an airline pilot. Even though I don’t fly recreationally or for personal travel—it’s hard to justify the expense when you fly for a living—the thought I could was always in the back of my mind. Often, I have thought about going to the local airport and getting checked out in a Cessna and doing some local sight-seeing. Or fulfill a dream I have had for years of getting qualified to fly helicopters or gliders. The glider rating might still be a possibility since you don’t need a medical certificate to fly one. Glider pilots certify before each flight that they are medically safe to fly. But I’d have to check on the legality of that. Since the FAA has medically grounded me they might consider me unfit to fly anything until I can prove otherwise.

If I were still experiencing the discomfort in my calf, I might be more understanding of the grounding. A doppler scan two weeks after the first one revealed the blood thinners did their job. The clot is gone. But until the FAA reviews my medical records, which can take four to eight weeks, I cannot act as a pilot.

Luckily, I had ten months of sick leave that’ll pay the bills until I go back to piloting a Boeing 737. I will have a two plus month vacation. I can accomplish the tasks around home I’ve put off and work on the novel I was writing.

But lurking in the back of my mind, as other pilots who were medically grounded have worried, is the fear: what if the FAA does not let me return to flying. That shouldn’t be a concern in my case as the cause of the clot was the three-day drive and my leg remaining stationary. But, just as when a caution light flickers in the cockpit indicating a system might be failing, I can devil advocate this medical condition. It has been discovered I have a mutated latent factor V gene that is prone to clotting. My primary care physician is not concerned by this as there is little risk of clotting unless I have two or more latent V genes.

But, what if the FAA disagrees? Even though the risk of a clot is low for non-pilots, what if the FAA feels the risk is too great for a pilot? Or, what if they want to wait until I have finished with the blood thinners to see if I develop another clot? Or do weekly blood tests to prove my blood clotting factor has not increased?

Having just over three years until I am forced to retire, these concerns are not as frightening then they would be if I had this diagnosis a decade ago. But I do plan to continue flying after retiring from the airlines. I hope to get a part time job flying for a corporation, charter operation, or an air ambulance as well as recreationally. If my novels sell well, get that helicopter or glider rating.

Stay tuned.

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