Imagine being confined to a hospital bed with a feeding tube inserted through your abdomen into your stomach, through which you receive all your nutrition. You can’t eat food because you can’t swallow. You are severely brain-damaged such that your mental capacity and ability to function is like that of a 6-year old child. But you are a 34-year old, attractive, Chinese woman, married with a child. You had an exciting career as a lead flight attendant on an international airline. You loved traveling and seeing the world. Add to this the fact that your doctors in Shanghai are giving you the grim prognosis that you will always require the feeding tube to stay alive, you will have to live in a hospital bed for the rest of your life, you won’t be able to walk, and your brain injuries are permanent.
This was the nightmare confronting Ms. Li Na Li, who was the lead flight attendant on China Eastern Airlines Flight 583 on April 6, 1993, as it was traveling from Shanghai to Los Angeles. Due to a design defect on the McDonnell Douglas MD-11 aircraft, there was an uncontrolled wing slat deployment at cruise altitude and speed over the Pacific Ocean, 950 nautical miles south of Shemya, Alaska. The plane began violently “porpoising,” losing altitude in steep dives, then rapidly gaining altitude and diving again as the pilots desperately tried to gain control of the plane. The forces involved were so violent that several people on board were killed and many others injured, even though the plane remained airborne. The flight diverted to Alaska to obtain emergency medical treatment for the injured passengers and crew.
At the time the incident occurred, Li Na was performing her flight attendant duties in the aft cabin of the aircraft. She was violently thrown around the cabin and slammed into the ceiling and floor. She sustained serious head injuries and brain damage which left her confined to the hospital bed in Shanghai, hooked up to a feeding tube.
The Baum Hedlund law firm in Los Angeles represented Li Na and her husband Shan Zhen in their case against McDonnell Douglas and China Eastern Airlines. It was such a tragic and heart-wrenching case, the injuries so dramatic and life-changing. It became clear as the case progressed that for Li Na to have any chance at all to improve her quality of life, she would have to receive advanced medical care and rehabilitation in the United States rather than the level of care available in Shanghai at that time. The firm felt it needed to do more than just handle the legal aspects of the situation.
Medical experts were hired not only for the legal case but also to evaluate Li Na’s condition, formulate a treatment plan, and oversee a rehabilitation program. Dr. Norman Namerow, a world-renowned neurologist at Daniel Freeman Memorial Hospital specializing in brain injuries and rehab, was brought on board. Dr. Namerow reviewed the case and traveled to Shanghai on several occasions to meet with Li Na, her doctors, and family. It was determined that the most aggressive and potentially rewarding course of action to improve her future condition and quality of life would be to bring Li Na to Los Angeles for treatment. This included attempting to wean her off the feeding tube and getting her strong and mobile enough to be able to sit in a wheelchair.
It had taken months of planning and preparation by Baum Hedlund – obtaining the proper travel documents for the family, arranging the “air ambulance” service on Northwest Airlines, hiring and preparing the special nurse, Ms. Su Mei Yin, from a company called International S.O.S. to accompany Li Na and her husband on the long flight from Shanghai to Los Angeles. On December 28, 1994, seeing Li Na come off that plane at LAX in her mobile hospital bed was a huge victory. Now it was up to the doctors to see if they could perform what, just months ago in China, seemed like would be a miracle.
The medical staff at Daniel Freeman Hospital worked diligently with Li Na to re-teach her the simple action of swallowing, as well as physical therapy. Li Na was interested, involved, and participated in the therapy, a key component if it was to be successful.
All the planning, persistence, and hard work paid off. Li Na began to swallow. The feeding tube was finally removed after being in place for nearly two years. She learned how to feed herself again and started eating soft foods and drinking fluids. She grew stronger and was able to sit in a wheelchair. As Li Na’s progress continued, she also learned how to bathe and dress herself. She enjoyed grocery shopping in her wheelchair and interacting with her daughter who moved to the United States to be with her.
As debilitated as her condition continued to be, at least her quality of life had greatly improved. It was very rewarding to see Li Na out of bed, sitting in a wheelchair, and eating, with a smile on her face.
It is a rare and unforgettable opportunity to be able to participate in an international humanitarian effort such as this one.