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When the call button calls, part two: Helping four patients in one round-trip transatlantic flight


Okay, just one final post on air travel. This morning a colleague called my attention to another fascinating account of in-flight health care, wherein an emergency department physician had to attend to - get this - not one, not two, not three, but four patients during his trip to and from Greece:

As I stood up, I saw an elderly man about ten rows in front of me, standing in the aisle in the tripod position, labored breathing, gray and sweating. That must be my patient, I thought. He doesn't look good. He couldn't tell me anything (too short of breath), but his traveling companion cheerfully informed me that he had had a heart attack only two weeks ago, and just got out of the hospital with congestive heart failure and had a pacemaker put in. Oh, is that all? His pulse was about 150, way too fast, and his blood pressure was also very high. When I asked, he nodded "yes" that he was having chest pain.

I figured that most likely he had gone into an irregular heart rhythm as a consequence of his heart failure and the low oxygen pressure in the cabin. I got out the defibrillator and moved him to an empty seat in business class because I figured that if he was going to code, I wanted room to work it. He looked that bad. I rooted through his med bag (a cornucopia of heart meds) and gave him aspirin, nitro, lasix, and metoprolol. And oxygen, of course. Then I went to talk to the pilot. We were two hours out from JFK, he said, but we could get down just a bit sooner by landing at Halifax, Nova Scotia. I tried really hard not to let the knowledge that I had a connecting flight affect my decision-making. Tough decision. Finally, I said that I thought he could make JFK but we should expedite it. I heard the engines spool up as the pilot accelerated the plane.

I won't spoil the story, but a Greek t-shirt plays an important role in the fourth "call of the call button."

Photo by PhillipC
Previously: When the call button calls: A hospitalist's thoughts on delivering care at 30,000 feet
Via Susan Lydick

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