29 January 2010

Friday Flashback

Rounding at 37,000 Feet

Anyone who has flown long-distance flights has heard the call: "If there is a doctor on board, please identify yourself to a flight attendant." But it's impossible to understand how that call induces the urge to flee to the lavatory and hide unless you are one of those unfortunate few who are on the hook, which is to say that you are qualified to respond, but you really really don't want to.

"But Gee," I can hear you think, "Aren't you an ER doctor? Isn't this sort of thing second nature to you? Don't you revel in the adrenaline and glory?" Well, yes. But. First of all, there is the performance anxiety thing. I'm used to working with a very small audience. In Economy class, there may be 300 people watching me try to do my thing, and I'm just not used to that many people being in the exam room -- and I know they are very interested in what's going on. Also, being an ER doc, I am terminally paranoid, and over the Atlantic Ocean there's just no easy way to differentiate the Very Bad Things[tm] from the more common complaints which occasionally represent Very Bad Things[tm]. So that also is anxiety-provoking. And then there's the potential that things might turn bad, and then it's a flog to run a code in the limited space available.

So, on Olympic Air, somewhere over the mid-atlantic, the dreaded call goes out. I cringe and try to sink deeper into my seat, hiding my face behind my magazine. Finally, seeing that nobody else responded, I gave a deep sigh and pushed the call light. It was a 60-70ish guy in First Class with abdominal pain which radiated through to his back. Great, I thought to myself, It's an Aortic Aneurysm. (see? I told you I was paranoid.) But his belly was soft with no pulsatile mass, good femoral pulses, and clinically, I thought the pain was much more suggestive of a kidney stone. I gave him some ibuprofen and said I'd check on him later.

I tried to sleep, but maybe an hour later, the attendant approached me again . . . there's another patient for you. Sheesh. This is an older fellow with a history of heart disease who has epigastric pain and nausea. How the hell am I supposed to tell heartburn from angina over the Atlantic? I asked the attendant if there was a defibrillator on board, thinking maybe I could at least look at the ST segments, but the Greek-speaking attendant seemed to not understand the question. I mimed shocking somone with paddles, and his eyes got very big, but then said, no, they didn't have anything like that. The patient said he has had typical chest pain with his heart attacks and this felt much more like his stomach. Then he threw up and felt a little better. I rooted through the medical kit and found something which looked like Greek meclizine and gave it to him. I checked on the first guy and he said he felt a lot better.

A couple of hours later, they roused me from a deep sleep (this was an overnight flight), to apologetically tell me that there was a third passenger in need of attention. Oh. My. God. This elderly lady was having trouble breathing and they had gotten an oxygen mask on her. Well, her lungs were clear and her pulse was normal and she seemed really panicky and her traveling companion said she had been under a lot of stress and hated to fly. So probably a panic attack. I told the flight attendant to keep her on oxygen for another half an hour (purely for placebo value) and told the patient in my most authoritatively reassuring tone that she would be feeling better by then. I then checked on the kidney stone (sleeping) and the nauseated fellow (much better, thank you). I went back to the galley and hung out with the crew, drinking coffee for half an hour, then went back to the panicky lady who had in fact experienced a miraculous recovery.

The flight crew was very nice and gave me a free bottle of champagne as a gift. And I swore I would never again admit that I was a doctor on an airplane flight.

The time in Greece was lovely. We started off on the island of Kos, Hippocrates' birthplace, and I got a cool T-shirt with the Hippocratic Oath on it, in Greek. As it happened, that was the only clean garment I had for the flight home (this time on Delta). This time we made it most of the way across the Atlantic before the call came for a doctor. I waited and waited and nobody else responded. Finally I decided that I couldn't very well walk around with the fricking Hippocratic Oath on my chest and not help out, so I gave in and rang the bell.

As I stood up, I saw an elderly man about ten rows in front of me, standing in the aisle in the tripod position, labored breathing, gray and sweating. That must be my patient, I thought. He doesn't look good. He couldn't tell me anything (too short of breath), but his traveling companion cheerfully informed me that he had had a heart attack only two weeks ago, and just got out of the hospital with congestive heart failure and had a pacemaker put in. Oh, is that all? His pulse was about 150, way too fast, and his blood pressure was also very high. When I asked, he nodded "yes" that he was having chest pain.

I figured that most likely he had gone into an irregular heart rhythm as a consequence of his heart failure and the low oxygen pressure in the cabin. I got out the defibrillator and moved him to an empty seat in business class because I figured that if he was going to code, I wanted room to work it. He looked that bad. I rooted through his med bag (a cornucopia of heart meds) and gave him aspirin, nitro, lasix, and metoprolol. And oxygen, of course. Then I went to talk to the pilot. We were two hours out from JFK, he said, but we could get down just a bit sooner by landing at Halifax, Nova Scotia. I tried really hard not to let the knowledge that I had a connecting flight affect my decision-making. Tough decision. Finally, I said that I thought he could make JFK but we should expedite it. I heard the engines spool up as the pilot accelerated the plane.

So I sat up in first class with him to keep an eye on him (The Wife eventually joined me when I didn't return to our seats in coach), and he progressively improved. His pulse came back towards normal with a second dose of metoprolol, and by the time we landed (almost 40 minutes early) his color was much better and his breathing was a lot easier. I wrote up a little report for the paramedics/ER, and after the fastest landing and shortest taxi I have ever had, the medics bustled him off the plane.

Again, the flight crew was really nice (and almost pathetically grateful, which was appropriate, since an unscheduled landing would be just about the end of the world to them). They took my business card and promised me a "nice little something." Lord knows what that'll be -- probably a fruit basket. It was rather a pain in the butt, but at least the guy really needed me, and it was gratifying to see him get so much better.

And I have resolved that from now on, I will fly with an iPod in my ears, cranked up so loud I cannot hear a single overhead announcement ever again.

Originally posted 2 June 2006


  1. What did they end up sending you?

  2. Been there too. Live on Whidbey Is. and the call goes out on the ferry as well. Thankfully, I'm just a nurse, but always go 'just in case'. One time in turned out to be my neighbor who had slipped and dislocated his hip. Ouch. Those people are forever in your debt, whether you choose to believe that or not. Great site!

  3. I'm a nurse and was in a plane once with one of those calls. Boy, they are hard to ignore, I can't do it. So the one I responded to was someone who fainted and probably had too much to drink. Thank goodness. I can't imagine having to code someone up in the air.
    Well, this one you really got to help, and it even got you to JFK faster! What did they sent you?

  4. Considering the shitstorm the airlines in question might have faced if one of those patients hadn't made it, particularly if the plane hadn't had--oh, something important or other--on board, i.e. the defibrillator, the very least they could have done was send you and Mrs. Shadowfax a pair of first-class roundtrip tickets to somewhere lovely.

    Seriously, you performed an extremely valuable service for them. If they're going to charge passengers twenty-five dollars to check a suitcase, they can in turn surely cough up (sorry) something substantial in the way of appreciation for passengers who've saved someone's life or helped avert a liability clusterf*ck.

  5. My father, an oncologist of all things, once responded to a very anxious shortness of breath-er on a long flight. I guess he never told my mother, because when he received in the mail the fist of many years' christmas cards from "The Heavy Breather on Flight 9999" she was rather upset...

  6. A buddy of mine got 2 round trip tickets to Asia for something similar.

  7. Hey Shadow,

    As with almost everything in the world of Emergnecy Medicine, things like this come in bunches and droughts.

    I've been in the ER for 28 years and fly a modest amount (5 - 6 times / yr). Four years ago, I had a run of 3 flights in a row with a total 5 "medical emergencies", none serious. None before and none since.

    So ... in my experience ... you are due for several years of hassle free flying.

    Seriously though, I did find it gratifying to have the sense that with no back up, little equipment, and just the tools of communication and experience, I was able to help another human being who was very frightened. Kind of cool and really why we do what we do.


    Greg B

  8. The last two flights I was on had panicked calls overhead for a doctor - twice on one flight and 3 times on the other one. I was never so happy to see an EMT step up to the plate on the first flight, and find 2 MDs willing to help on the second. My big fear, is that as an emergency and critical care veterinarian, if there is no one on board who is trained in human medicine, I'll have to step forward. I'm willing to do CPR, and I figure a human ECG can't be too different from a dog's, but I chose to work on animals because people stuff, quite frankly, grosses me out. Thanks for stepping up to help.

  9. LOL...Unbelievable! The chances of that many patients on one flight? And a bottle of champagne? Where the heck was your "fly free for a year ticket?" You earned it...

  10. Ive heard that accepting anything from the airlines means you are no longer covered under good samaritan laws. Is this true?

  11. Anon,

    That's probably an over-broad generalization. If you offer your services in advance and accept compensation in advance, then you might be at risk of losing good samaritan protection. To my knowledge that has never been litigated. However, accepting a gift out of gratitude after the fact would probably not invalidate the coverage.


  12. Health care has to be important for society, findrxonline indicate that health care in America is depressing, is this lack of interest from the government?

    Medicines have to be controlled mainly by the different situations that can determine, is known to the world that much addiction to drugs such as Vicodin, Lortab, OxyContin, Codeine, which are anxiolytics and may cause collateral damage from this situation, why care and prevention, and self says we should not resort to findrxonline but specialist.

  13. I know this is an old post, but something just popped into my head today. Would the NOLS Wilderness Medicine courses would be useful for this type of situation? Obviously the situations aren't the same, but working without the labs and diagnostic testing normally available in a hospital would be the same.

  14. I found your story whilst 'Googling' 'What are your rights if you have a panic attack on a plane?' - You might think what an odd question but I suffer from claustrophobia and I'm facing a flight over the Atlantic pretty soon - and let me say that after all the horror stories that I've found on the web (like RAF planes flying over an AA plane becase a lady had a panic attack - eventually she was arrested!) your story made me wasa great relief and a laugh ... What you did was great and although a pain to you I thank you (and all the others wo do the same) in the name of all of us who need either assistance or reassurance when is needed. You definitely deserved more than a bottle of champagne!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.