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.