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The truth behind medical emergencies at 40,000 feet

(Kent D. Johnson/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/MCT)

How many times have you been on an intercontinental flight, downing a drink when an unfamiliar voice over the intercom asks if there is a doctor onboard to tackle a medical emergency at 40,000 feet?

For most of us, because we are not doctors, just wonder who the poor person is and hope that he/she gets help.

For doctors, though, it can be a nightmare, as Celine Gounder writes in this piece for The Atlantic.

She says most airlines are not prepared to deal with real emergencies.

The FAA, she writes, requires flight crews to be trained to coordinate responses to medical emergencies, to use first aid kits, to be familiar with the contents of the emergency medical kit, to use an automated external defibrillator, and to perform CPR.

“But flight crews also rely heavily on the assistance of health care providers aboard the aircraft. Studies by the airlines and ground-based medical support services have found that a health care provider is available and responds in upwards of 80 percent of in-flight medical events," Gounder writes in her piece.

But she points out many health care providers find themselves attending to issues they don’t see in their medical practices.

If asked, many health care providers will volunteer to help, especially if no one else is available, and this can lead to problems, she says.

In 2011, a pediatrician onboard an Air India flight from New Delhi to Toronto helped deliver a baby when the mother went into labour prematurely.

Everything ended well in that story but things can go wrong too.  

Gounder also says there is a chance that if more than one health care provider responds to the call for help, they might disagree about what to do.

And then there are times when health care providers may also not be prepared to respond to an emergency because they board the plane as passengers, not doctors. Like the other passengers, they may take sedatives to sleep or have a drink or two.

Dr. Larry Chang, an infectious diseases specialist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, tells Gounder that he never takes “sedatives on flights because I feel like on almost every other international flight they ask if there's a doctor on board.”

Raveena Aulakh is the Star's environment reporter. She is intrigued by climate change and its impact, now and long-term. Follow her on Twitter @raveenaaulakh


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Seriously? I fly either domestically or overseas on average once a week and have been doing so for more than 10 yrs. The only medical emergency I've seen in all that time was at the end of the boarding bridge as we left the aircraft. Some unfortunate person dropped from what appeared to have been a heart attack.

Correction to last post.

There was one other occasion. We were asked to remain seated after we arrived to allow EMTs clear access to somebody in distress at the back of the plane.

Stewardesses, back in the 30s and 40s were nurses.

I was on about 600 flights over the course of three years, and only experienced this request for assistance once.

When they asked for the second time, I mentioned that I had a current first aid and CPR certificate, and would help if they couldn't find anyone better.

When no one else responded, I lent what assistance I could, and the passenger recovered nicely (at least for the rest of the flight).

The flight crew were amazing and supportive in every way.

At the end of the flight, I was given a bottle of wine for my efforts, and Holly Cole, who was sitting next to me, arranged for me and a couple of guests to watch her show that night in Seattle (it was fantastic!).

Air Canada then gave me an extra 15,000 Aeroplan miles for my trouble.

All in all it was a wonderful experience. I would offer my services again in a heartbeat.

We've flown an average 4 times a year for the last 35 years and have only experienced one medical emergency. Not only did we get 'is there a doctor on board?', we got an unscheduled stop on the flight. Of course, we never did find out the fate of that passenger.

I was on a flight back to Toronto from Beijing in February of 2011 when the call came over the PA for a medical doctor. I never did find out what happened but for hours,aircraft personnel were going back and forth -- some obviously quite distressed by whatever was going on just behind us. At one point a big guy from the flight deck hurried back in what looked like a butcher's apron! When we landed we were told to remain seated until Peel police and medical personnel came on board but eventually those of us forward of the event were released.

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