Medical Emergencies While Traveling and What to Do

When I was in my thirties, I traveled from San Francisco to Paris for vacation. We took a red eye, hoping my baby daughter would sleep. Just as I was dozing off, I heard an announcement: “Is there a doctor on board?” Apparently, I was the only volunteer.

The flight attendant brought me to the front of the plane where they had a woman in her sixties lying on the floor with an oxygen mask strapped onto her face and an emergency kit beside her. She had passed out while walking to the bathroom but was now awake. I asked her about hydration and medical history. She was otherwise healthy but had several glasses of wine in business class, and it had made her circulatory system temporarily collapse when she stood to go to the bathroom.

Still, I had to make a decision about whether to land the plane to get her medical care. The woman on my flight had a normal blood pressure: 110/70, slightly less her usual blood pressure. I decided against landing the plane prematurely because she seemed to be back to normal, just tipsy and dehydrated. You don’t need to know the detailed medical response, but the takeaway is not to drink on a plane!

Medical emergencies occur about fifty times per day on flights in the United States.1Silver, K. “Is there a doctor on board? Managing medical emergencies at 30,000 feet.” Washington Post, August 6, 2015. ...continue Many are minor – a fellow passenger faints or has a panic attack. Others can be life-threatening, such as an asthma attack, pulmonary embolism (blood clot to the lung), or heart attack.

Here are the most common reasons for a medical emergency:

  • Fainting or lightheadedness (vasovagal episodes) in 37 percent
  • Breathing problems in 12 percent
  • Nausea or vomiting in 10 percent

The key is to check for injuries, like trauma to the head, and to make sure the person is coherent. Then it’s hydration, hydration, hydration.

Fortunately, only about 7 percent of flights with a medical emergency need to land because of the illness.2Ibid. If you fly a lot, a medical emergency will occur on your flight. Do your part as a Good Samaritan to help the affected passenger and personnel.

1.  In your opinion, if you’re a layman with no medical training and you see someone in medical distress in public, what safe measures can you take to help – trying to talk to this person to get medical information or checking their pulse or breathing until help arrives, for example?

Just as I wondered as a gynecologist if I was the best person to help the woman on my flight, you might second-guess your own ability to help. But the truth is that there are a few things you can do. Most people know how to check a pulse either at the wrist or the neck. Do that. Check for breathing. Call for help (9-1-1). If the person is conscious, ask their age, if they have any medical problems or allergies, and if there’s an emergency contact you can call. While commercial flights don’t require medical staff to be on board, airline attendants often have access to a medical consultation service on the ground that can help in an emergency.3Nable, J. V., et al. “In-flight medical emergencies during commercial travel.” New England Journal of Medicine, 2015, no. 373 (2015):939−945. Additionally, flight attendants are required to know CPR and how to use an Automated External Defibrillator in the event that someone’s heart has stopped.

One of the most important things you can do, regardless of training, is to be a compassionate presence for someone in distress. When you have an emergency, most people think of the worst-case scenario and that no one will stop to help them. Being a kind and loving person is so reassuring (even if you have very little to offer in terms of medical or emergency training); we can all do that in an emergency.

2. What measures should you never undertake yourself in such a situation?

What not to do. Fortunately, this list is very short. If someone fell and hit their head, don’t move them. Wait for a professional. If the person has a spinal injury, you may worsen it by moving them. It’s better for a paramedic or EMT to see exactly how they fell and how they were lying when you found them.

3.  What preparations can we all take so we might be of constructive help during a medical emergency (e.g., learning CPR)? And what information about our own medical status should we always have memorized or on our person in case we are the victim of a medical emergency in public?

Whether you have medical problems, carry a list on your phone (I use my “notes” feature) with your emergency contact, any medications, and any medical history.

I suggest that everyone learn CPR so you don’t experience the terrible powerlessness of watching a loved one or stranger die whom you could’ve saved. Prevent a tragedy. There’s a terrific video game that you can play to learn CPR, and it’s available at kiosks at most airports. It’s taught to the rhythm of Staying Alive. Next time you’re at the airport, learn CPR or get a refresher. It may save a life.

Now it’s your turn. Have you or a loved one had a medical emergency, or witnessed one, while traveling? If so, what did you do? I’d love to hear from you. Leave a comment below to share your story and raise awareness.

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References   [ + ]

1. Silver, K. “Is there a doctor on board? Managing medical emergencies at 30,000 feet.” Washington Post, August 6, 2015. https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/travel/is-there-a-doctor-on-board-managing-medical-emergencies-at-30000 feet/2015/08/06/9ea7037a-0afa-11e5-9e39-0db921c47b93_story.html
2. Ibid.
3. Nable, J. V., et al. “In-flight medical emergencies during commercial travel.” New England Journal of Medicine, 2015, no. 373 (2015):939−945.