On a flight home from Baltimore last year, a woman sitting in a row behind me rang for a flight attendant. “My husband isn’t feeling well and is having trouble breathing,” she told the attendant. That set me to wondering what happened when someone experiences a medical emergency while on a commercial flight. Would someone yell out “Is there a doctor on the plane?” Would we turn around and go back? To start off the question and answer column on my blog, I sought an answer from an airline captain with routes in the US. He has experienced numerous medical situations while airborne across the country and gives us some insight into what happens behind the scenes. By the way, the flight attendants in my case did ask if there were any doctors on board (a doctor and a nurse responded).
Answer: Scott (captain major airline)
“In a recent flight between St Louis and Denver, a flight attendant called the cockpit relating a passenger had passed out just after the plane had reached cruise altitude. Up front, our first task is to establish communication with a company called STAT MD. They are located in Pittsburg and provide on call doctors for airborne emergencies. At the same time, our flight attendants provide initial care and request help from medical personnel that might be on board. In this case a nurse agreed to help. A head set is available for her to be in direct contact with the doctor while back in the passenger compartment. A plane carries an emergency medical kit that has a wide range of medical equipment for use by trained medical personnel or under the direction of the doctor. While the STAT MD doctor communicated via radio with the nurse on the aircraft, up front in the cockpit, we explored possible locations to divert in case the doctor believed the emergency dire enough the patient required immediate hospital treatment.
The passenger became alert, but continued to have low blood pressure. After monitoring the individual’s situation, the doctor recommended we expedite arrival at an airport with the appropriate medical facilities required. By now Denver was our best choice for landing. We declared a medical emergency with air traffic control and received expedited handling for landing. We also coordinated through our company dispatcher to have emergency medical technicians available. We were met at our gate by EMT’s who provided further medical care. Getting an ill passenger off an aircraft depends on their location and condition. If at the front, a wheelchair or backboard can be used. Further back in the plane, we use a thin wheelchair made to fit down the aisles.”