Is There a Doctor or Nurse on the Plane?

As air travel becomes more common and more passengers take to the skies, medical emergencies are occurring more frequently in flight. Crew members are trained to handle some common medical problems and, in some instances, they can receive medical advice from physicians on the ground. But these options are no substitute for having a licensed medical professional on board. Could you be asked to lend assistance on your next flight?

When a medical emergency arises on a passenger flight, all heads turn to ask: “Is there a doctor or nurse on the plane?” If they offer to help, doctors and nurses may face challenges. They must care for a stranger without the benefit of any medical history. The patient may require care that is outside their specialty area. They have limited equipment and supplies available and must work in tight spaces while being closely scrutinized by the crew and other passengers. Some cases are serious enough to require the medical professional to decide if the plane should be diverted so the patient can seek emergency care on the ground. Although this is ultimately the pilot’s decision, pilots rely on the medical professional’s advice.

Medical professionals are protected by Good Samaritan laws in these situations, and they receive some support from crew members who are trained in CPR and carry emergency medical kits and automated external defibrillators on board.

What It’s Like to be the One

Cindy Tryniszewski knows what it’s like to be called on to help when a medical emergency occurs in flight. She is the Executive Director of Nursing e-Learning for MC Strategies, has a master’s degree in nursing, and 37 years of nursing experience. Cindy was on a flight to Denver when an elderly woman began having trouble breathing. Cindy sprang into action, administering oxygen, checking vital signs, and gathering a health history. After talking with the passenger, her daughter, and the flight attendants, they agreed that an emergency landing wasn’t necessary. The woman had stabilized, and there was a defibrillator on board just in case. Cindy checked on the passenger every few minutes and recommended that an ambulance meet the plane when it landed. A few months later on an overnight flight from Los Angeles, one of the passengers on Cindy’s flight suddenly shouted for help. When Cindy rushed over, she found a man sprawled on the floor, looking pale and seriously ill. She worked with another nurse and a doctor on board for an hour and a half to stabilize him. In large part because of Cindy’ expertise, both experiences ended well despite the challenges they presented.

No doubt, doctors and nurses will continue to be asked to lend emergency medical assistance in flight―and they will continue to respond. Some have even begun to pack emergency medical supplies and medications in case they are called on to give aid. Let’s hope they’re on our flight.

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