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.

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