Is there a doctor on the plane?

by Academy of Clinical Excellence on May 4, 2010

After changing planes in Chicago, I was heading to San Francisco for the Annual Meeting of the American Society of Addiction Medicine. When I travel to meetings (with no kids to entertain), I always have mixed feelings about whether I prefer the person sitting next to me to be chatty or quiet. On the flight from Baltimore to Chicago, the person sitting next to me turned out to be a Hopkins surgeon who liked to chat. So far on this flight, I had been left alone and was immersed in my book. That was about to change, with an overhead announcement- “If there is a doctor on the plane, we need you immediately in the rear of the plane.”
I looked around. Two of my colleagues were on the plane. Neither one moved. I think one made believe he was asleep. I was sitting on the aisle, so I peered back. Someone was lying on their back in front of the bathroom. A second flight attendant was running back. I looked around again. Still there was no movement on the part of the passengers, or the gentleman on the floor. “Oh well, I can read later”, I said to myself and I stood and went back to see what was wrong.
It was a young man in his 20s who had passed out while heading to the bathroom. He was clearly breathing, but too groggy to speak. I asked the flight attendant to see if he was travelling with someone and a friend came back to provide some history. The passed out young man had no medical problems, but he had never flown before and was afraid to fly. Therefore, at nine in the morning, he had already had three glasses of red wine and no food.
I was provided a stethoscope and a blood pressure cuff and his blood pressure and heart rate were initially low, but within a few minutes, the gentleman was able to sit up, drink some juice and eat some food. His vitals were now normal. I then did some brief intervention for his unhealthy use of alcohol.
But then the most exciting part happened. The flight attendant brought me a headset and I got to talk with the pilot and air traffic control. They wanted me to describe what happened and then asked me, “Do we need to divert the plane to the closest airport?” I felt incredibly empowered. I could ruin everybody’s day by saying yes!! But, I knew the answer was no. The passed out gentleman was awake and eating. I had performed brief intervention on my way to an addiction meeting and just wanted to get to San Francisco, the home of the Grateful Dead. I told them no, but thought it was prudent to have a paramedic team be at the gate in San Francisco, which is what happened.
I got off the plane and discussed what had happened with the paramedics who were on the gangway outside the plane. My two physician colleagues, who were on the plane, met me in baggage claim.
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