I'm Heaving on a Jet Plane

How to Treat Listeria at 35,000 Feet

A close call with Blue Bell's recent recall begs the question: What would JetBlue do?

By Andrew Husband April 28, 2015

I was afraid this would be me. Image: Shutterstock

A funny thing happened the day before my flight home to Boston from Houston Hobby Airport. Blue Bell Creameries in Brenham, Texas issued a nationwide recall for all of its frozen dessert products. Not just certain half gallon flavors or their standard issue ice cream sandwiches. All of them.

The company worried that a Listeria monocytogenes contamination once thought isolated to its Oklahoma plant was actually running rampant throughout its entire stock of products. With three deaths and several confirmed illnesses in Arizona, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, the century-old company wasn't fooling around. However, according to The New York Times, Blue Bell's measures weren't fast enough.

So what's so funny about all this? When the total recall was announced on the Monday evening news, it was mentioned that two tubs of Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough at the Brenham plant tested positive for listeria contamination. I didn't see it, but my mother did, and I imagine she turned several shades whiter since I had just eaten a bowl of the stuff earlier. To make matters worse, I had a plane to catch in less than 24 hours.

My girlfriend and I were staying with my parents in Chappell Hill, a small town just east of Brenham. When we joined my mother in the kitchen the following morning for breakfast, her expression was one of parental concern. Let's add in just a bit of biology degree-induced fright for good measure. I hadn't seen that face since I decided to move to Boston on a whim a few years prior.

Considering that I haven't taken a biology class in over 15 years, I didn't even know what listeria was. A brief Google search put me in touch with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's official press release:

Listeriosis is a life-threatening infection caused by eating food contaminated with the bacterium (germ) Listeria monocytogenes. People at high risk for listeriosis include pregnant women and their newborns, adults 65 and older, and people with weakened immune systems.

Okay, let's go through the implied checklist. Andrew, are you either pregnant, a woman or a pregnant woman? No on all counts. Are you a newborn? Haven't been for at least 30 years. Are you 65 or older? No, but sometimes I get this weird crick in my neck. Was your immune system weakened at the time of ingestion? I'd been eating Tex-Mex and drinking margaritas for days, so quite possibly.

Just because I'd consumed half a pint of Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough didn't mean I had listeriosis. Twenty hours after giving myself an ice cream headache, I hadn't experienced any of the symptoms identified by the CDC, including fever, headaches, stiffness, loss of balance, confusion and convulsions. Aside from the conflicting needs for coffee and sleep, I was more than ready for my flight back to Boston.

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I really, really didn't want to get sick on a plane. Image: Shutterstock

But it begs the question, what if I had eaten a contaminated sample of Blue Bell's best? What if I had consumed a sample of listeria, and what if it was quickly working its way through my digestive tract and past my immune system's defenses? Let's play devil's advocate.

Say all of these what ifs are true, and that my body was a brooding case of listeriosis waiting to ravage me and anyone else around me. At that moment, I was boarding an Airbus 320 bound for Logan International Airport. If my sickness became manifest en route, I most likely wouldn't infect anyone else on board, but I'd still pose a health risk. What would JetBlue do in this situation?

My imagination wandered as the plane took off from the tarmac in Houston. Would the flight crew quarantine me in one of the two bathrooms, thereby making everyone with a small bladder miserable for four hours? Or would they pull an HEB and toss me out into the blue?

I decided to give JetBlue a call the next day and find out what their official policies or procedures would be if such a scenario transpired. A helpful media representative named Phillip pointed me in the direction of Victoria Day, Managing Director of Corporate and Member Communications at Airlines for America.

According to her, “US airlines and their crews are well prepared to respond to in-flight medical emergencies. First aid kits and emergency medical kits, specified by FAA regulations, are available on board all aircraft.”

In addition, “all of Airlines for America’s passenger carriers have in-house medical experts and/or contract with a service such as MedAire, the Mayo Clinic, or the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center to provide medical consultation.”

So each plane you fly on comes fully equipped with a basic (but substantial) first aid kit. Just as well, all airlines based in the United States contract out to one of three major medical designated hitters for hot-ticket items. Things like a case of listeriosis, perhaps. But that's not all.

Victoria concluded with a bit of obvious reassurance, saying that “flight attendants receive training for medical emergencies as required by the FAA.”

As should be obvious by now, I didn't eat an infected bowl's worth of Blue Bell ice cream. My mom was simply being what she is—a mother. Still, the thought of what would happen had I become violently ill during my flight from Houston to Boston made me wonder about something I'd never suspected. That is, just how awesome my JetBlue flight crew was (and could potentially be) during my trip home.


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