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Medical tips for holiday travel

Stanford Medicine Unplugged (formerly SMS Unplugged) is a forum for students to chronicle their experiences in medical school. The student-penned entries appear on Scope once a week during the academic year; the entire blog series can be found in the Stanford Medicine Unplugged category

plane in skyThe holiday travel season is in full swing, and millions of people are off visiting their loved ones. So a seminar I recently attended on in-flight emergencies was quite timely.

I had been looking forward to the seminar, which was led by emergency medicine faculty members, all week. During the holidays, I have to travel on several different flights to get home, and occasionally, a flight attendant has asked on the loudspeaker if there is a doctor on-board. I was excited to finally be in the know.

Much of the conversation during the first part of the seminar focused on a New England Journal of Medicine article on how physicians should handle in-flight emergencies. It noted that the most common reported medical event during a commercial flight is fainting; the most fatal is a heart attack. Interestingly, heart attacks make up only 0.3 percent of in-flight emergencies, but they cause 86 percent of in-flight deaths.

For the second part of the seminar, emergency medicine faculty told us anecdotes about times when they had been called on during a flight - some stories were haunting, others interesting tidbits - and walked through three different simulations. The law about medical professionals helping people during in-flight emergencies is vague regarding medical students. But I know this: If a doctor is called during one of my upcoming flights, I sure hope someone onboard is more qualified than I am.

In all, I gathered several practical tips that could be helpful to readers. If you are traveling and concerned about in-flight medical events, please consider this:

  • Print or clearly write a list of medications you are currently taking. Include how often you take them and at what dose. Keep this readily accessible on the flight.
  • Make sure to travel with these medications in your carry-on in case your checked luggage is lost.
  • If you are traveling with someone you can confide in, make sure they know if you have any current illnesses. If not, please add this information to your list of medications.
  • If you have an allergy to any medication, please write this on your list. Write what kind of reaction you have, whether it is a tightening in your throat or a rash.
  • If you or a loved one does experience a medical event, stay calm.

Flight attendants are trained for in-flight emergencies, and they'll let the pilot know what is going on. They may ask if there is a doctor or medically trained professional on board. They'll get the medical kit that is federally required on every commercial flight. And they can call ground support.

The most important thing you can do as a passenger experiencing a medical emergency is to provide the information necessary for others to give you the best medical care available on a flight. And if you witness the medical emergency of another passenger, stay calm and call a flight attendant if they haven't already been called. Let them know if you are a medical professional or if you are CPR certified. CPR is an exhausting procedure and it helps to have several people certified in CPR so that no one wears out.

If a doctor is onboard and taking care of the patient, follow their medical instructions. If it's a severe emergency, the doctor might speak to the pilot to recommend redirecting the flight to a closer landing location. Ultimately, the pilot is in charge of the flight. Never argue with the pilot.

For more information on tips for traveling with medical illnesses, please see the Federal Aviation Administration’s helpful site.

Photo by Brandon

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