How Not to Botch The FAA Medical

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I was thinking about taking a pass on my FAA Third Class medical, which was expiring at the end of May. I always dread this process (the paperwork, the physical), as do most pilots who have lived longer than five or six decades. But I decided to take the chance once more, and postpone a transition to Basic Med.

For those of you new to aviation medical questionnaires, there are no trick questions – except one, which has annoyed the hell out of me for years. The trick question asks if you have ever been admitted to a hospital. Ya’ gotta wonder. What does that mean? If you go to the information desk and ask to visit your aunt who has recently had bunion surgery, and they let you in, are you admitted to that hospital?  No, of course not. It means “Did you ever stay overnight in a hospital?” 

But lots of people stay overnight, sitting at the bedside of a beloved aunt. So it doesn’t really mean “Did you stay overnight,” but rather, “Did they keep you overnight because an insurance company was paying for it, and lord knows, the only reason they’re forking over the cash is because, hard as they tried, they couldn’t figure out how to avoid 'losing' a couple thousand dollars for your saline I.V. and that wonderful hospital food.”

If you’re about to get your first FAA med-exam, I’d recommend that on your very first medical application, you check this box and describe the first time you were admitted to a hospital. In my case, I was taken there involuntarily by a woman I had never met. Things quickly got crazy, and after being dragged out of what I considered my own personal space, I was held by my feet, inverted, and naked. This was all against my will. And someone slapped me. Then I was given a hospital ID bracelet, and hauled away where I was washed – still naked – by another woman I had never met. It was horribly embarrassing, all of me being quite small at the time, but at least I was no longer held captive by the person who soon claimed to be my mother. And I was held overnight, regardless of the fact that there was clearly nothing wrong with me! (A nurse actually told my mother I was perfect.)

So unless you were born in the proverbial barn, I’d report that first hospital admission. I didn’t. My dilemma is this: Should I report it now? If I do, would that be an admission that I had omitted my initial admission to a hospital? Would that be confessing to a federal offense, in that I should have reported it earlier? I can only hope that this confusing mess will continue to slip through the cracks.

But it gets worse. What if you simply forgot the next time you were admitted to a hospital? When I was eight years old, my uncle was backing down his driveway in his 1957 Ford. I was on my two-wheeler near the end of the driveway. I pushed off the mailbox using my left hand, hoping for a successful U-turn to get out of his way. I slipped on some gravel, and found myself lying flat in the middle of the driveway. As the Ford quickly approached, I pressed my head into the gravel and thought this: Adios. Fortunately, several witnesses saw my death approaching, and were screaming at him to stop the car. He stopped. So now I was underneath a ‘57 Ford. I crawled out and wiped from my head what I figured was gasoline (hey, I was eight). The screaming peaked as I stood up with a bunch of my scalp covering my right ear.

I did not report this on my first medical. I forgot. Yet subconsciously, I was aware of what happened: Sirens blaring and heavy bleeding during a 20-minute ambulance ride to a hospital; 40 stitches being sewn into my scalp; asking the ER surgeon if I was going to die. I vaguely remember that after he wrapped my head in a turban, my uncle came in and I saw him cry, which made me feel guilty, and the experience eventually became just a slush of emotions, filed in the mysterious, subconscious part of my brain.

But there it was again: another unreported hospital admission during the first decade of my life. Should I report it now? And if I do, must I then check the box that asks whether I have “Mental disorders of any sort; depression, anxiety, etc.”? What on earth does etc. cover? Suppressed memories maybe? I don’t know. There’s no definition of terms on the application. 

What, oh what to do? If I report it, will I have my medical yanked retroactively? Rather than being rewarded with two more years of Third-Class flying, could I be sent to the slammer for “lies of omission”? And if “suppressed memories” of an eight-year-old kid count as a condition of mental instability, maybe they’d put me in the psych unit.

A simple addition to this application would resolve all of my concerns: There should be an option that says, “If this is not your first medical application, do you have anything to add that you may have inadvertently omitted on an earlier application?” That would resolve not only the problem of being born in a hospital, but also the problem of forgetting that my uncle ran over me in a 1957 Ford, one of the ugliest cars ever. I’m sure I would have remembered it all clearly if it had been a 1957 Chevy Bel Air Sport Coupe with a 283. 

Comments (12)

John Yodice wrote a column once on the legal perils of making a falsification on the medical application, even unintentional ones (such as accidentally forgetting a hospital stay). It results in a felony and can become years of jail time as well as a heavy fine (like $25k). Scary stuff that can change your life forever. Bottom line is they can pretty much do what they want to you if you make a misstep.

Posted by: A Richie | September 17, 2018 8:45 AM    Report this comment

"Admitted" to a hospital has a specific meaning in the medical world. Staying in a family member's hospital room doesn't count. Even spending the night in the ER doesn't count. You have to be "admitted" under a physician's care by a physician who has admitting privileges at the hospital. I'm also not sure you're considered an admitted patient as a newborn if you're just in the nursery.

Posted by: Daniel Cope | September 17, 2018 9:04 AM    Report this comment

Daniel, people shouldn't be expected to be experts in medical lingo, which could be very misleading.

For example, 'conscious sedation' now being offered by dentists for work like oral surgery is based on the arcane medical definition of 'conscious' meaning that your body can breath on its own - but to most people 'conscious' means awake and aware.

There are many questions of ask in the direction of admission to hospital - such as day surgery clinics, oral surgery in a dentists office, etc.

Posted by: Keith Sketchley | September 17, 2018 10:16 AM    Report this comment

A humorous article on a serious subject that has troubled most of us. The medical questioinnaire has several potential gotchas, but the hospital admission question is probably the worst. Key word here is "EVER". Ever is a long time, and I question the need to divulge to the FAA that I spent a night in the hospital following an appendectomy 40 years ago. The simple approach would be to always answer "yes" and explain on the back. However, sometimes your explanations can open additional cans of worms as far as the FAA is concerned.

Perhaps the solution is to place a statute of limitations on the question; mention any admission in the past 10 years. Surely anything older than that could be considered a non-issue. But, we are talking about the FAA here, the masters of obsessive compulsive disorder.

Posted by: John McNamee | September 17, 2018 11:29 AM    Report this comment

As a newborn when the wristband is put on, the baby is "admitted" to the hospital and may be charged for everything including the air he/she breathes.

Posted by: Richard Montague | September 18, 2018 7:04 AM    Report this comment

I am probably not the only one with a vivid enough imagination to think that somewhere, in a dimly lit office without windows and buried deep behind a pile of special issuance medical cases, someone just let out a muffled cough. The cough was from the dust which was blown up by the approximately 2 inch folder that carries the name: "Jeff Parnau". May god help you, Jeff. I hope you used a pseudonym and a proxy...

Posted by: Jason Baker | September 18, 2018 12:18 PM    Report this comment

"Key word here is "EVER"."

That's exactly my issue with the entire FAA medical form is the "Have you EVER ...". I was talking to another pilot friend of mine the other day how the list of "Have you EVER" conditions just grows and grows over time. PTSD falls under the "anxiety, etc", so even if it was an isolated incident that has since been resolved, if you don't check off "Yes", you have lied on a medical application form. Same thing with headaches or seasonal allergies or childhood surgeries. And does anyone remember ALL childhood hospital admissions?

There definitely should be a limit to how far that look-back goes. "Have you EVER" is just far to medically intrusive for ZERO safety benefit. But it does have HUGE legal ramifications if you unintentionally (or even intentionally) leave something out, no matter how small.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | September 18, 2018 12:35 PM    Report this comment

Regarding "Posted by: Jason Baker" -- Yeah, I wondered about that. But I decided that if they believed the story about forgetting some stitches when I was eight years old, they'd also have to believe that I recalled being born, and remembered what the nurse said. At that time I didn't even understand English. (It falls under poetic license.)

I do agree with the need for the word "ever" to be removed.

Posted by: Jeff Parnau | September 18, 2018 5:18 PM    Report this comment

Gee, thanks a lot, Jeff! I wasn't too worried about renewing my medical before, but now I'm terrified ;)

Posted by: John Nevils | September 19, 2018 8:36 AM    Report this comment

Probably I will someday be hauled before the court of no defense, but I make liberal use of the "previously reported" notation rather than trying to recall exactly how I described the event time after time.

Posted by: John Wilson | September 19, 2018 11:42 AM    Report this comment

The best way to eliminate the awkward situation facing Pilots is to check "yes", and add, "You have better access to my medical records than I have." If the FAA comes up with something, it proves you spoke the truth. No, I'm not an attorney.
Steve Hatfield
El Paso, Tx.

Posted by: Steve Hatfield | September 19, 2018 3:45 PM    Report this comment

It was a worthless article and his "humor" was stupid! When I was born my mother was admitted, not me.

Some useful advice about what to do if I previously failed to disclose when I was admitted (for overnight stay as a PATIENT, not a visitor) would have been useful.

If the courts were honest they wouldn't allow prosecutors to use "trick questions" to prosecute someone! Our founders must roll over in their graves every time something like this happens. Write your Congressman.

Posted by: Bob Toxen | September 23, 2018 8:52 PM    Report this comment

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