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. 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. 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. 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. Physicians must determine if they would positively contribute to the situation.
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. 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.
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She went pale and limp like a ragdoll against her seat. I thought I'd need to start CPR, but she had a pulse, so we waited. I also thought that I should have asked to see the ingredients. I wished I knew Italian so I could read the label. By this point, the crew had asked on the overhead speaker if there was a doctor on the plane. I am a doctor, yet in mommy mode I gladly waited to see if another physician would answer the call.
Quickly, a thin, tall man appeared, and he was a pediatric surgeon! At least he could do a cricothyroidotomy with a penknife and a sports bottle straw if he needed to, right?
Thankfully, my daughter recovered, and she did not need additional emergency treatment. We simply monitored her for the rest of the flight, but I was grateful for the other doctor's willingness to help. That nerve-wracking flight was six years ago, and I have experienced many in-flight emergencies since then. I've even learned to travel with my stethoscope because when I forget to bring it there is always an incident, and the stethoscopes in airline medical kits are often less than ideal. I had my stethoscope with me on a recent flight from Beijing to Seattle, but its luck apparently ran out.
We had not one but two emergencies. In those 12 hours, I learned some important lessons about teamwork, collaboration and communication. We were about two-and-a-half hours into the flight when the first call for help came. A man in his 50s was passed out on the floor.
The passenger had diabetes and a history of gastritis and abdominal pain. In addition to me, there was an oncologist and endocrinologist on board, as well as two emergency medical technicians. Our new patient's vitals were poor. A quick check showed there wasn't much in the plane's medical kit.
“In a doctor's life, there are a number of situations where you get an urgent and they're limited to the medical equipment available on board. Should there be a doctor among the passengers on a flight, they can be called on to deal with anything from minor incidents, including panic.
We had oxygen but no glucose monitors and few medications. The flight attendant turned the situation over to me, and I worked with the other physicians and the EMTs to help the passenger. This is when the beauty of teamwork came into play. Everything happened so smoothly that an observer would not have realized we were all complete strangers, each playing an important role in delivering care to our patient at 30, feet. The EMTs were fantastic, jumping right in to get vitals, grab the oxygen tanks and put the patient into a reclining seat in first class.
The patient's airway, breathing and circulation were all stable, and the exam was pretty unremarkable. He regained consciousness quickly, so we were able to get a history. We were able to check glucose because another passenger let us use his new glucometer, which the endocrinologist helped with. Meanwhile, another woman appeared and started massaging the patient's feet and calves.
I politely asked what she was doing. She introduced herself and said she was a complementary medicine clinician. She explained she had decades of experience and had, in fact, been lecturing about acupuncture in China. As we had this discussion, she continued to apply acupressure, and the man's blood pressure improved.
Color started coming back to the patient's face. The woman then offered to provide acupuncture.
The EMTs were initially against this suggestion, but I did not have any other supplies or medication to help. I have seen acupuncture work in similar cases, and the other physicians agreed that it likely would not hurt the patient. We discussed this option together and allowed her to continue. It's also important to consider cultural preferences. The passenger was Chinese, and although my Chinese isn't perfect I was able to communicate with him, and he appreciated and seemed to understand the woman's help.
When she applied acupressure and acupuncture, his blood pressure improved and his abdominal pain eased.