Beth Longenecker, DO, never imagined that her journey home from a blissful trip to Hawaii would include these seven words: “Is there a medical doctor on board?”
She immediately sprang into action, abandoning her book to help a passenger who had been found unconscious in the bathroom with dangerously low blood sugar levels. Quickly, Dr. Longenecker, who is board-certified in emergency medicine, obtained an IV and administered glucose to the patient on the plane. Eventually, the patient came to, though she was confused.
“Since the passenger couldn’t be moved back to her seat, I braced myself on the ground and held her while we landed,” Dr. Longenecker says.
In the summer, many physicians are traveling more frequently. Dr. Longenecker shares what you need to know if a medical emergency occurs on your next flight. A frequent traveler, Dr. Longenecker has answered the call for a physician on an airplane several times, including instances when she treated dehydration and an asthma attack.
Care in the air: 5 tips
1. Don’t be afraid to help
Although flight crews typically receive basic medical training and have access to an on-the-ground physician via telemedicine, in-person medical expertise from a physician on board can be critically important during an emergency.
“This is a patient who truly needs help. You don’t need to be trained in emergency medicine; any physician has a broad enough knowledge base to provide initial care,” Dr. Longenecker says.
2. Show some ID
To put the flight attendants and patient at ease, show your medical license, state license card, business card or another document that identifies you as a physician. You may also want to show your Advanced Trauma Life Support or Advanced Cardiac Life Support cards.
3. Understand that supplies will be limited
Typically airlines will have basic supplies such as oxygen and aspirin, but the supplies in the flight kit can be limited. Here’s a list of what the Federal Aviation Administration requires in flight kits.
“It’s a little more frightening treating someone on an airplane than in your office where you know what supplies you’ll have,” Dr. Longenecker says. “It’s hard to be prepared.”
In this situation, physicians might need to think outside of the box if the necessary supplies are not available in the kit. For instance, when Dr. Longenecker treated a patient who had an in-air asthma attack, another passenger had an inhaler he was able to use.
4. Prioritize care
Assess the situation to determine the most crucial issue that needs to be taken care of on the airplane. For instance, on Dr. Longenecker’s journey from Hawaii, that meant providing the passenger with glucose to help elevate her blood sugar levels until they landed.
“You will get frustrated if you think comprehensively like you would in your office rather than addressing what is immediately correctable,” she adds.
5. Don’t accept payment
Good-faith treatment provided by a physician during an in-air emergency is protected from liability by the federal Aviation Medical Assistance Act of 1998, a Good Samaritan law. However, the law doesn’t apply if you accept payment for your services. But gifts of appreciation, such as a voucher for a free flight from the airline, are fine.