The Day I Froze

By TJ Stewart

From the cockpit, I can see the sun setting as the plane starts descending into Dangriga, a small town on the coast of Belize. I am responding to a call about a boat that capsized with a young mother and her infant son onboard. Reportedly, the infant was under water for 20 minutes. The biggest goal is to get the patient onboard and airborne before dark.

Looking over, I see that the baby is secure in his plastic carrier and the medic is taking her seat as well. We’re set to take off.

As I am performing my pre-start checklist, the medic tells me that the baby is responding to our care. The mother looks up at me and asks, “He’s getting better?” For the first time in my life, I freeze before starting up the engine.

I have done hundreds of flights with patients who are minutes from death — and never froze. I’ve disassembled and reassembled an aircraft engine, installed it on an airplane and flown it without hesitation. In high school, with my basketball team down by one point — and me on the free throw line with seconds left to play — I didn’t freeze. But with the sun setting quickly and the engine start checklist waiting, the care and love that this young teenager had for her son froze me. After I don’t know how long, I mumble something along the lines of “Yea, he’s getting better,” while restarting my checklist. The engine fires up, and we takeoff toward Belize City.

A few days later, I step into the children’s ward of the hospital in Belize City to check on the two patients. The mother has already been cleared, and I find her diligently adjusting the clothes of her baby in a hospital bed. She excitedly tells me that her son was removed from the breathing machine today and is expected to make a full recovery. This time, her voice is not only filled with the same care and hope that stunned me a few days before, but it has another element: pure, unfiltered joy. If I was frozen before, the joy on her face literally melts my heart.

TJ Stewart is a Wings of Hope pilot flying humanitarian missions in Belize. This is an excerpt from a blog TJ wrote in January 2017. To read the entire blog, go to

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