“Planes are germy anyway,” CNN Executive Producer Jennifer Bernstein said to me over the phone today. I was talking to her about how paranoid I got while flying this week because of swine flu.
I travel by plane a few times a week, mostly for work. I’m in the air enough to earn platinum miles status on Delta and a few other airlines. (This reminds me, I need to get rid of all those US Airways miles from my stint in Philadelphia. But I digress.)
[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/05/01/lemon.don.large.jpg caption="Don Lemon receives Alumni Distinguished Acheivement Award from Brooklyn College."]
I flew to New York last Sunday morning to attend an awards ceremony at my alma mater, Brooklyn College. I had just anchored three hours of swine flu coverage, and all I could think about was being in a confined space with a few hundred other people. At least one of them was bound to have been in Mexico recently.
I found myself looking around at people, especially the people who looked tan, like they had been on a beach vacation. The couple sitting across from me fit the profile. They were freshly sunned. They wore shorts, flip-flops and slept for most of the two-hour trip to Kennedy International Airport. Oh, and that’s another thing. I hadn't flown in or out of Kennedy International in years. I usually fly to LaGuardia, sometimes Newark. But rarely do I fly into Kennedy International.
(I’m italicizing International for obvious reasons. I felt it greatly raised my chances of coming into contact with an international traveler who had been in contact with swine flu.)
I tried to relax. Even though I was exhausted from working late the night before, I couldn’t. I heard every cough, every sniffle, every sneeze. “Don’t you people cover your mouths?” I kept thinking to myself as I looked around to see people coughing into the headrests in front of them.
I thought about the last time I had this uneasy feeling while flying. It was a few years ago during the SARS outbreak. On late notice, NBC sent me to Toronto from New York to do a quick story on SARS for The Today Show. “Fly up and fly back,” they said. I ended up staying there for two weeks. Needless to say I had to buy clothes.
Then, no one spoke the entire plane ride to Canada. In fact, the plane had relatively few passengers; not empty, but sparse. There were people wearing surgical masks on the flight and in the Toronto airport because of SARS. There were people wearing surgical masks on the Toronto streets. And just as I arrived, the incidences of people becoming ill started to increase; thus my two-week stint.
I interviewed a number of people who had come down with SARS. One elderly man in particular stands out in my mind. I wasn’t afraid but my crew was. The sound tech placed the microphone on the man's front lawn and walked away from it. His wife walked outside, retrieved the microphone and then placed it on him inside the house. He sat in the front window of his living room so we could get a clear camera shot of him. I stood on the sidewalk and interviewed him from about 50 feet away. I was embarrassed. But I did not have children. My crew did. And they said they didn’t want to take any strange bugs home to their families. I certainly understood that. By the way, we left the expensive microphone and the cable with the couple to keep. The camera crew didn’t want to risk it.
Suddenly, recalling that experience eased my fears. I realized how many of us had overacted during that outbreak. Sadly, people had died then. But Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) faded from the headlines. And as I sat in the crowded plane the other day at Kennedy, I prayed now that swine flu would do the same. I relaxed and took the attendant up on her offer of a fruit plate for breakfast. I opened up my favorite section of the Sunday New York Times, “The Week In Review.” And I quietly gathered my thoughts about what I’d say as I accepted the alumni award for distinguished achievement.
If it was time for me to cross paths with the swine flu bug, then so be it. Grandma always said, “Life is for the living.” And she was right. Just keep living, I thought.
But first I had to go wash my hands. Again!