Lands Minister says health emergency on plane may’ve been ‘fluke moment’

Written By Rob Shaw

Lands Minister Nathan Cullen had just wrapped up another busy week at the perpetually-busy legislature when he boarded his flight to Smithers, took his seat, leaned back and closed his eyes.

“I just put my head down for a second,” Cullen recalled. “And I woke up and my shirt was ripped open and there were three firefighters standing overtop of me. And I was like, ‘Whoa, what are you doing on our plane?’”

Cullen had blacked out.

By chance, the person sitting beside him that day in early May happened to be an emergency room doctor. She couldn’t find a pulse on his wrist or neck, he said, and so the plane — by this point taxing to the runway for takeoff — declared an emergency and hightailed it back to the gate while firefighters and ambulance converged on the scene.

The minister and MLA for Stikine was whisked off to Saanich Peninsula Hospital. Five hours of tests later, he’s still not sure what happened other than he, essentially, fainted.

“The emergency doc said normally you just lie somebody down and the heart rate comes back up,” said Cullen. “But mine… the machine kept going off in the hospital. I was there a long time, like five or six hours hooked up to everything. And it just kept dropping into the low 30s and 40s.”

That’s not normal, so Cullen said he’s booked for follow-up tests on his heart to check on structural issues.

‘I just blacked out’

It’s all a bit of a surprise to Cullen, who at 51 is in his fourth year as an MLA, second year as a cabinet minister and also running for re-election in Stikine in October.

“I’ll do the tests this week,” he said in an interview in his office at the legislature Monday.

“They’ll tell me. They’ll look for structural stuff. But honestly, I just blacked out. And I’m not going to get too grand about it. It just happened to be in a very public space. And it caused a big event because of where it was. But we’ll see. I think it’s fine.”

In the past year, Land, Water and Resource Stewardship Minister Nathan Cullen has ushered in a lot of change to how land is managed in BC. [Photo UBCM]

Cullen went public with the bare bones of the incident on social media — a decision he said he made with some reluctance. He keeps his private life mostly off the internet — a consequence of a long life in the public spotlight, including 15 years as the MP for Skeena-Bulkley Valley.

But the high-profile nature of the incident, involving a cabinet minister causing an emergency on a public flight and being carted off to a public hospital, put Cullen in the position of having to explain what happened.

“I don’t really post private stuff, but I had missed a trade show where I had a booth, and I cancelled a bunch of meetings back in the riding, and I didn’t want my staff up north having to lie or not really be clear,” he said.

“Also, living in a small town, rumours aren’t great. So I thought, I don’t want to sensationalize this but I also don’t want to hide it.”

‘Maybe it was just a fluke moment’

Typically, the fainting Cullen suffered — called vasovagal syncope — can be triggered by the sight of blood, extreme emotional distress or claustrophobia. But Cullen, who flies regularly, says he’s suffered none of those things.

Perhaps stress from being the Minister of Water, Land and Resource Stewardship in the government of Premier David Eby, which is moving at warp speed on a variety of fronts?

“It could be — my wife thinks that’s probably true,” he said. “But I know when I’m super-stressed… I don’t feel that way.

“I don’t know, maybe it was just a fluke moment.”

For now, it’s business as usual for the NDP’s senior-most northern MLA and minister. He just regrets all the fuss.

“I just felt terrible for everyone on the plane,” he said. “They were going to miss their connections.”