Is there a doctor on board? True stories of in-flight medical emergencies

About halfway through a recent overnight flight from Los Angeles to New York, a call went out on the PA: Is there a doctor on board?

It woke Johnson Lee, a plastic surgeon from Beverly Hills, from a slumber. He soon found himself examining a patient in the galley, who looked “gray and clammy.”

Lee asked a crewmember for the onboard medical equipment.

“The blood pressure cuff they handed me was broken,”  he remembers. “I asked them to bring out the automated external defibrillator and hooked up the guy so I can at least monitor some basic vital signs, like heart rate and rhythm. For blood pressure monitoring, I improvised by using my fingers on his neck and wrists.”

Lee stabilized the patient, who survived. A grateful attendant handed him a bag of potato chips.

In-flight medical emergencies stories

His is just one of several doctor-on-board stories making the rounds lately. Last year, for example, a medic on an Air China flight used a towel and a spoon to save a passenger having an epileptic seizure. A nurse flying from Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, to Boston performed CPR on a fellow passenger suffering a heart attack, saving his life.

And who can forget the lucky Southwest Airlines passenger traveling from Atlanta to Houston who fell ill on a plane filled with doctors returning from a medical conference? Needless to say, he received the very best care.

A federal law called the Aviation Medical Assistance Act of 1998  offers limited liability protection for physicians and other medical professionals who volunteer their services during in-flight medical emergencies. In such cases, doctors have to be medically qualified, render care in good faith and receive no monetary compensation to be protected under the law.

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Should medical professionals be hesitant to offer help?

Even so, medical professionals have good reason to be hesitant offering help. Remember the case of Tamika Cross, the physician who tried to revive an unresponsive male passenger on a Delta Air Lines flight from Detroit back to Houston last year? When Cross offered to render first aid, a flight attendant questioned her credentials and demanded to see her ID. Another passenger eventually helped the ailing man. In response to a viral social media post made by Cross after the incident, Delta changed its policy and will no longer ask for identification from medical personnel.

“Despite the cramped and medically limited conditions at 30,000 feet, most physicians are ready to assist, without question, during an in-flight medical emergency,” says Steven Stack, an emergency medicine physician from Lexington, Ky., and a former president of the American Medical Association (AMA). “But not all circumstances are the same. Physicians must determine if they would positively contribute to the situation.”

Medical volunteers encounter a variety of responses from airlines
  • Jeff Levine, a volunteer EMT from Red Hook, N.Y., assisted a passenger on a flight from Tampa to Newburgh, N.Y.  “The airline did nothing to say thanks for helping on the flight,” he recalls. “Although several passengers thanked me while I was waiting at the baggage carousel for my bag.”
  • Kristina Skinner remembers how her father, a fire chief and paramedic, assisted a passenger having a stroke on a flight from Las Vegas to San Francisco. The airline sent him a flight voucher valid for one year.
  • Pamela Abramson-Levine, a chiropractor from Los Angeles, helped a woman suffering from lower abdominal pain on a flight from Los Angeles to Kuala Lumpur. “I was given a bottle of champagne for my assistance,” she says.
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Rather than rewards for these volunteers, airlines should take a few basic steps that could save the lives of passengers. The AMA has urged airlines to expand the contents of in-flight emergency medical kits and place emergency lifesaving devices onboard commercial passenger aircraft. That might have made Lee’s patient a little easier to attend to. At a minimum, the AMA wants voice communication with qualified ground-based emergency personnel to assist in an emergency.

Accepting payment for a medical service means medical professionals could lose their liability protection, which is why the association also recommends that doctors turn down any compensation for their volunteer efforts. Knowing you saved a life is perhaps the greatest reward of all.

Avoid in-flight medical emergencies
  • Know when you shouldn’t go. In-flight medical emergencies can be difficult to predict and more difficult to avoid. Generally, you should avoid flying if you’re sick, recovering from a serious illness or have a condition that is easily exacerbated by the stress of flying, according to medical experts.
  • Don’t fly if you’re contagious. If you think you might have an infectious disease, stay home. Airlines will issue a credit and may waive the change fee if you can prove you were sick at the time you were supposed to fly. Boarding a flight while you’re contagious can spread disease.
  • Avoid flights that could divert. Some flights are likelier to experience a medical emergency than others, particularly those to destinations that tend to attract retirees or passengers in poor health. Flights to Las Vegas, Miami and Fort Lauderdale may fall into that category. It’s still not a large percentage of flights, but these routes have encountered their share.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at chris@elliott.org. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

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