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Airplane Medicine: What Happens When You Answer The Flight Attendant’s Call For A Doctor

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.

*This blog post was originally published at Movin' Meat*


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3 Responses to “Airplane Medicine: What Happens When You Answer The Flight Attendant’s Call For A Doctor”

  1. Becca Price says:

    I’m not an ER MD but I am a nurse. I have had somewhat the same experience, having to monitor and care for passengers who never should have gotten on a plane for the entire flight. It always amazes me that a free drink chit and the like is the only appreciation the airlines give you. You have given up your comfort for the whole flight. Why not a free ticket (so you can fly somewhere and NOT respond to the call for medical personnel)? Yeah, it’s nice to help but that’s NOT its own reward if you travel a lot like I do.

  2. Nurse Pat says:

    I’m a retired RN…with ER experience a long time ago. I had a similar experience on a cruise ship…the guy coded when I got to his table…we were in the dining room. I took his pulse..he was gone…I helped dump the chair to the floor ..by then the cruise med team arrived…it was their first time working together…it was a chinese fire drill. The man was gone before they attempted anything. I always dread this happening when I have no support system…like this doc…on a plane, train or in my case ship. The ship did have a team, but I was only 10 yards away. I comforted the wife…my biggest contribution.

  3. What’s with this bottle of champagne thing? I had a similar experience on a trip from Heathrow to LAX last summer – after ignoring the call until my 7-year old said aloud “mommy I think they need you”, I spent about 4 or 5 Transatlantic hours crouched on and off in a coach seat (sacrificing my extra 4 inches of Economy Plus seat) hours with someone who had desaturated and had tachypnoea but with otherwise normal vitals (?PE ?who knows what). Never did figure out the problem, but she seemed stable. The hugely grateful crew were talking about how they planned to thank me (little did they know how dangerous I was, not having practiced for 10 years) – I figured a first class ticket for a future flight!! Well, I landed up lugging two bottles of champers off the plane in my handbag! I have yet to drink them.
    Good job, Movin’

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