When John Flanagan, M.D., and Matthew Stevenson, M.D., boarded their vacation flight to Jamaica at the beginning of 2018, they were unaware of how much their presence would mean to one particular passenger.
"This is a story about a bunch of people working together to help a lady who we were never going to see again. It's not about me or John — it's about all of us," Dr. Stevenson said.
After a five-hour inclement weather delay, the flight took off from Orlando to Montego Bay, where Dr. Flanagan and Dr. Stevenson would be vacationing with their families.
"When we got up to cruising altitude, they made a casual announcement: 'Does anybody on board have any medical expertise?’ They didn't make it sound like an emergency, so we assumed it was an anxiety-induced issue or someone having too much to drink."
Dr. Stevenson watched as a fellow Envision Physician Services clinician offered his help to an elderly Jamaican woman in the middle of the plane. He began using the plane’s emergency medical kit while passengers fanned her. Dr. Stevenson was concerned by the woman’s lack of movement, so he approached and asked how he could help.
Improvising to Deliver Critical Oxygen
"I learned that this woman had a history of bad COPD,” Dr. Stevenson said. “Her blood pressure was twice the normal rate, her heart rate was more than 100 bpm, and the oxygen saturation probe we used was reading in the 50s and 60s.
“When you go up to altitude, you depressurize, which is enough to tip somebody with these conditions over the edge. She was in trouble, but we knew if we could deliver oxygen, we could stabilize her.”
Their fellow physician had placed an oxygen mask on her, but she was already showing shallow, labored breathing and was cold and clammy. The woman then went limp and arrested.
After laying her in the aisle, Dr. Stevenson made his way up front to urge the flight crew to make an emergency landing. Luckily, the aircraft was still in U.S. airspace, which enabled the pilots to begin the emergency descent.
Motioning to Dr. Flanagan at the front of the plane, the two anesthesiologists began searching through the emergency flight kit for an intubation scope needed to open the woman's airway and supply the oxygen she so desperately needed. Unable to find one, they made some quick innovations using a pediatric AMBU bag.
“I was trying to find a way to connect the AMBU bag to the oxygen source, which has the attached yellow mask that pops down during preflight safety videos,” Dr. Stevenson said. “We needed that oxygen tank to use the bag, but without scissors, I couldn’t remove the stock tubing from the tank. I ended up having to pull the tubing out of the mask, which I then engineered into the AMBU circuit.”
Dr. Flanagan successfully bagged the woman while the plane descended to the Fort Lauderdale airport, a critical combination that saved the woman’s life. By the time Emergency Medical Services crews arrived, she was more stable and was awake and talking.
Carrying Envision Physician Services’ Commitment to Help Those in Need
Dr. Stevenson noted that while it was a strange experience to provide emergency care in a non-clinical environment, it was familiar enough to take quick, meaningful action to save a life.
“If something’s going wrong and you can help, by all means, you hop in. In a way, it is a part of the Hippocratic Oath, and any compassionate person should take action. This is just what doctors do, and I think most of our physicians feel the same way or would do the same thing.”
“We each used our individual skills together as a team to save this woman’s life,” said Dr. Flanagan.