It seems that I am following Paul Levy, who is Not Running a Hospital. In sharing his spirit, I am Not Retired.
My flight from Denver to Washington Dulles was late to depart due to thunderstorms. We left at 10:30 pm and I tried to sleep, but was sufficiently alert to hear the page at approximately 2 am: “Any medical personnel on board?” The flight attendant escorted me to first class where a passenger had what she thought was a seizure. And she was probably right – only it was due to sudden cardiac death. No pulse, no breathing, unconscious. Male, perhaps 45 yo, looked fit, no companion.
The flight crew assisted me in lifting him into the aisle. Because of their training, by the time that I started CPR, one of the attendants had the AED out and started handing me the pads for placement. V.Fib. We shocked once and got a rhythm. He started to breathe and the oxygen tank was right there. He had a rhythm, he had a strong pulse, he was breathing. I said: “This is good.”
I tried to get a BP, but the sphygmomanometer was broken. We got another emergency kit and it had a cuff that worked – BP ~115 systolic. I admit that I struggled to get accurate BP recordings because my ears felt like I was 12 ft underwater from the altitude change (and probably a need to see an audiologist). We sorted through the medical kits and I finally found the NS under the neatly packed top layer of drugs. Found the tubing, tried to maintain sterile technique, and got a decent IV in his forearm while fighting postural movements of his upper extremities. Then came VF arrest #2 and #3. Shock, shock, back to NSR. I was able to push lidocaine 100mg IV.
While scrounging around the medical kits, I found an endotracheal tube. To me great relief, he kept breathing on his own and had good color. I hadn’t intubated anyone in 40 years. Meanwhile, the pilot was diverting us to Louisville where the EMS team met us. You know how tight the aisles are. We managed to get him onto a back-board, but then had to tilt him to nearly 90 degrees to turn the corner. He was on his way to the hospital and after refueling, we were on our way to Dulles.
I got applause and handshakes as I returned to my seat. How strange! After our 4 days together, I could only think that “it’s about the patient, not about me.” I was particularly aware of the calm and effective work of the flight attendants on our team.
In Louisville, we needed new fuel and a new flight plan. So, with the extra time I asked to gather all the attendants and debrief. What went well? 1) We successfully resuscitated a passenger with SCD at 30,000 feet. 2) An AED was mission critical and the staff was trained in its use. 3) Our treatment lasted about 45 minutes; we were calm; we explained what we were doing among the team; no one panicked including the other passengers. 4) EMS personnel were at the door upon the Captain’s diversion.
What didn’t go well? 1) the first BP cuff malfunctioned. 2) I struggled with obtaining accurate BPs. 3) I was slow to get what I needed out of the medical kits; the IV bag, couldn’t find a tourniquet 4) The patient had not regained consciousness upon departure, but groans were evident.
How can we improve? 1) preventive maintenance (PM) on medical equipment. 2) I suggest a digital BP cuff that reads the result without my impaired use of the stethoscope. 3) We should ask nearby passengers to vacate their seats so that we might spread out the medical equipment and drugs. 4) have EMS use an entrance that avoids tight turns, if possible.
We become physicians to heal the sick, relieve suffering, comfort those in need, and occasionally we may save a life. I do not know the outcome for this gentleman. I am worried; yet, I am hopeful. I strive to role-model humility. Yet, transparency reveals that I am proud to be a physician and proud of our team of strangers at 30,000 feet.