In-flight medical emergencies…

chosenbythemoment, ems, emt, firefighter, firefighting, jesserobbins, lessons, operations, stories

“You don’t choose the moment, the moment chooses you. You only get to choose how ready you will be when it does…”

I passed this Fire Academy lesson to my friend Ethan as I stepped onto a plane, returning home from vacation. I offered these words hoping he would find comfort, or at least company, while he wrote a letter to our many friends affected by the Blue House tragedy.

As the plane climbed out of San Jose I began writing down what I remembered from my crisis communication books, along with the great class taught by the King County Chaplains. Lost in sad thoughts, I almost missed the announcement the flight attendants were making: “May I have your attention. If there is a doctor or nurse onboard please ring your flight attendant call button.”

I rang mine and told the nervous looking flight attendant who came over that I was an EMT and happy to help. She asked me to come back where I found a 28 year old man, clutching his face in pain. The flight attendants said “He’s had eye surgery, and I guess he shouldn’t have flown.”

I began putting on my gloves, which I had instinctively grabbed from my bag as I left my seat. As I turned to face the patient a man abruptly stood up and said “I’m an eye surgeon”.

The doctor asked a few quick questions and then just as quickly… poked the patient in the eye. He stared intently for a moment, and told the flight attendants “This plane needs to come down, we need to reduce the pressure or this man will lose his vision in his only good eye”.

One of the flight attendants was communicating with the pilot and a medical dispatcher via a headset. I suggested that the doctor speak, and gave him the quick lesson in simplex communication. “Press, Pause, Speak, ‘Over'”.

While he did this, I asked for the medical bags and began inventorying them, suspecting that the kits were probably similar to an ambulance jump-kit without drugs or needles. I was happy to find that the aircraft “Enhanced Medical Kits” are really well stocked, and told the doctor what drugs and equipment were available to him.

A few minutes later the doctor was performing minor surgery on this man’s eye, with me holding a flashlight, setting up equipment, keeping a log, and whatever else needed to be done.

The pilots brought the plane down to 3,000 feet as the doctor finished de-pressurizing the man’s eye and saving his vision. I picked up the trash, asked the doctor if he wanted vitals or oxygen for the patient, and began writing a report.

In 2004 the FAA required commercial aircraft to carry an Enhanced Emergency Medical Kit, intended for use by medical professionals that might be on the plane. The flight-attendants can’t even open it, and most of the drugs are out of my scope-of-practice as an EMT. It’s a gift from those who have found themselves chosen by the moment… to those who are about to be.


(note: I migrated this post to here from my livejournal on September 22, 2007)