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One finds human kindness in the most unexpected places – even at 35,000 feet up in the sky.
Flying back to London from Mumbai, India last Sunday on BA198, a kindly Scottish cabin crew member called Elaine McWilliams (pictured above right with her colleague Maria) stopped to ask me about The Smile Train wristband I was wearing.
I explained that it reflects my support for the world’s leading cleft charity, The Smile Train, a cause that is particularly active in India.
“Are you a surgeon?” she asked.
I explained that I was not but that I had recently been in the company of one – Dr Mukunda Reddy, who heads The Smile Train-funded cleft unit at Nizam’s Institute of Medical Sciences in Hyderabad. I told her of the life-changing work he does.
I also told her about the way the travel retail industry has embraced the cause – so much so that a US$1 million target is now in sight since the effort began in earnest last October with the ‘Turning Tears into Smiles’ fund-raising dinner in Hong Kong.
Unexpectedly , Elaine whispered to me that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer last year and treated in a German hospital, which also had a cleft unit. She understood both the procedure and its importance well.
Then, even more unexpectedly, this lovely woman asked: “Would you mind if I organised a donation among the crew to give to the cause? I’m sure they’d like to help.”
Elaine did not know me at all. Why would she or other cabin crew members donate money to a complete stranger for a cause most knew little about?
But she and they did. Just before the crew took their positions for landing, Elaine appeared in front of me and, looking a little apologetic, handed me a package, best known it has to be said for other purposes.
“Sorry it’s in a sick bag; it’s all we could find to put it in,” she said. “This is from the crew.”
We laughed as I noted that never had a sick bag been put to better use. Inside was a combination of currencies, amounting to around £60, well on the way to funding a child’s cleft lip and palate operation.
But it wasn’t the amount, it was the gesture and its spontaneity that touched me.
What kindness. So bravo Elaine for your humanity – and for your supremely creative deployment of the humble sick bag – and bravo the whole BA crew from flight 198.
I, like many others, was openly critical of the airline at the time of the Heathrow Terminal 5 opening debacle (my suitcase went missing for the whole period of my stay in America in April).
But in this single gesture, any lingering feelings of negativity were washed away. Elaine and her colleagues Soyani, Maria, Lynn Hood (a marvellous Cabin Crew Services Director) and others – those on the flight deck also contributed – restored not only my faith in British Airways but also in the innate goodness of the human spirit.