Plane Panic: A Medical Emergency at 35,000 Feet

When an airplane passenger stops breathing, a doctor has to improvise on the fly.

I’ve never liked flying very much. I know a lot of physicians who feel the same way: By nature, we like to be in control, and flying involves giving up control. 

But I was returning home from a conference 3,000 miles away, and that would have been a long drive. So as the plane took off, I settled into my window seat and did what I usually do: I closed my eyes and tried to will myself to sleep. 

I had been on-call for the previous week and must have been exhausted; the next thing I knew my seatmate was jostling me.

“You said you were a doctor, right?” he asked urgently. “They’re asking for one up front.” In an instant, I was suddenly, jarringly, awake.

Medical training left me in a perpetual state of high alert, so when I’m told someone needs a doctor now I don’t think of upset stomachs or anxiety attacks — I think of cardiac arrest. Knowing there might be no time to lose, I squeezed past the two people in my row. A dozen rows ahead, a frantic young man was shaking his neighbor, whose bulky form was slumped over in the seat. “He won’t wake up!” the young man gasped.

I dived into the row and pressed my fingers into the man’s neck. My new patient’s face was chalky, his eyes open but unseeing, and he wasn’t breathing. At his carotid artery, I found no pulse.

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