Accidents can happen any time, any place; there's just no way of knowing. Although, what if they happen 30,000 feet in the air? That can definitely make things more complicated. Luckily, in these situations, someone was able to help.
Doctors who responded to someone asking "is anyone a doctor here?!" on an airplane share their stories. Content has been edited for clarity.
A Minor Pit Stop
“I was on a plane, about halfway into a six-hour flight when the call came over the speaker; ‘If anyone on board has extra heart medications, please alert a flight attendant.’
My wife and I had recently finished residency, and looked at each other a bit worriedly. Sure enough, 30 seconds later, they’re asking for doctors. I’m a forensic pathologist.
I tell my wife ‘This is way too soon for me to get involved.’
She rolls her eyes as she puts her hand up.
Fortunately, this was a flight to Alaska for a cruise, and about 25% of the other passengers also have their hands up, and another few are already up and running down the aisle. Cardiologists, I assume.
We end up emergency landing in Calgary. They offloaded the passenger, and spent about two hours doing paperwork because of an unexpected international landing with an overweight plane. When we land at Anchorage, the pilot tells everybody the patient turned out OK, though I’m not sure if he really knew that or was just trying to make us feel better.”
She Didn’t Look Like A Doctor, But She Was
“About 15 years ago, my sister was in her last year of med school, and had flown from our hometown to the capital (one hour flight) to visit her best friend. They partied together for a weekend, and was on her way home on a plane. Just after locking the doors, while taxiing, they had the attendants call for a doctor.
My sister, being rather hung over and still dressed for partying, waited a minute before she volunteered that she wasn’t a doctor yet, but was close. The attendants had her come look at an elderly woman that didn’t answer or really react much at all when talked to, suggesting maybe she was trashed or on something. My sister examined the woman a few minutes, determined that she most likely had a stroke, and said that they would need to go back to departures and get an ambulance.
The attendant communicated this to the cockpit, and the copilot comes back and asks her if it’s really necessary, and if it would be ok to finish the flight and have an ambulance meet them at the destination. This was a low-cost airline, and apparently it’s rather expensive to turn around like that.
My sister got somewhat annoyed, and said something LIKE ‘Yes it is, turn this darn plane around right now.’
They turned the plane around, and the woman got picked up and transported off the plane, they started the flight and arrived back home.
While taxiing to arrivals, the 50-year-old or so impeccably dressed and distinguished looking captain walks up to my then 24 or so year old hung-over sister, dressed in a miniskirt and low-cut blouse, looked down on her and said, ‘Oh, so you are the student that ordered my plane to turn around.’
My sis said she hadn’t felt that small in many years.
She did get a thank-you from the airline soon after, but never got to know what happened to the patient.”
That Escalated Quickly
“I am a physician, so I have many, many eye rolling stories. The strangest one that occurred outside a hospital was when I was on a plane. A guy locked himself in the bathroom for over an hour after the drink cart bumped his elbow, claiming it ‘dislocate’d his shoulder. He agreed to come out only after I listed my credentials through the door, and told him I work in an ED.
When he opened the door, I was shocked, as here was this HUGE, muscular dude, like 6’4″ and 240lbs, at least. He looked like he could have been a starting defensive lineman for the Eagles. I asked if I could take a look and simply palpated the shoulder, feeling for the humerus through this thick slab of muscle.
He pulled back and said, ‘Why would you do that to someone with a shoulder injury?’
I told him I was simply examining him, and not to worry, there was no way I was going to injure him or worsen anything, and that I’ve reduced dozens of shoulders over the years. He then proceeded to walk over to the wall in the galley and slam his shoulder against the wall, like he was Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon 2. I told the flight attendant that this was more of a security issue than a medical issue, and she told the pilot and on-ground medical supervisor what happened. We had to land in another city, and he was taken off, along with some other random guy who threatened the flight attendant for some reason relating to this event, which was bizarre. It was all so strange.
The airline gave me a voucher, but I declined (figuring I was just acting as a good samaritan and didn’t do much anyway). The flight attendant did give me several extra packets of those awesome Lotus cookies they hand out with coffee, and I will admit that I ate every one. But anyway, the guy’s shoulder was not dislocated, and I have no idea to this day what his deal was.”
Good Thing They Were There
“I’m about to graduate medical school, but I’ve helped people on flights twice in my career so far.
The first happened in my third year. A young patient was hyperventilating and complaining of chest pain. The cabin crew asked if there was a doctor on board. I waited, since as a medical student I didn’t want to get in the way if someone more qualified was going to come in.
One minute later, the cabin crew call again. No one came in. I got up and went to the back. Assessed the patient, got a history, did a physical exam. Vitals and O2 Sat were normal. Found out the patient has had a history of panic attacks. Based on the fact that this patient was healthy, young, and had a history of panic attacks, that was my main thought. I asked if they had an anxiety medication (anxiolytic), and the patient said they did somewhere in their bag. Their partner went and grabbed it, the patient then took the medication, and I babysat for a while checking vitals every 10 minutes. Soon they felt better, and fell asleep. I checked on the person a few times over the flight, but they were fast asleep each time, their partner gave a thumbs up when I approached. The cabin crew gave me a business class pre-landing meal. It was nice.
The second time happened a few months ago. Also, on an airplane. Someone collapsed right in front of me (I was in a row close to the restrooms) while they walked into the bathroom. I stood up, got the patient laying on the ground out of the aisle near a wall and lifted their legs up, asked the cabin crew to call a doctor and before I could check ABCs, the patient regained consciousness. The patient immediately was talking. I checked vitals, did a history and exam, and they said they barely drank any water that day. A consultant physician this time came in to help. I told him a quick summary of what happened, what I did, and he took over. We both waited around until the patient said they wanted to get back to the seat and they were fine the rest of the flight. I ended up getting a cool collectible item from the cabin crew at that time. It was nice.”
“Felt So Numb”
“Was flying to LA for a job interview, and was sitting in the 2nd to last row of the plane. As I’m about to put my noise-canceling headphones on and enjoy the four and a half-hour flight, I hear an overhead announcement for any medical personnel on the flight. Mind you, this was literally 20 min after we took off. I waited a few seconds to see if anyone pressed their button. No one did, so I pushed my call button. The flight attendant came to me looking worried, and told me to follow her.
She led me to first class (the 2nd row), and this woman was in her seat knocked out. She was with her husband and he said that she wasn’t waking up. I assessed her and checked her out. She wasn’t responding to stimuli but she was snoring hard and her eyes weren’t budging. Her airway was patent, she had a good pulse so I reassured them. She was in a deep sleep (from mixing medicine with drinking, I presumed at the time). I offered to check on her every 20 minutes or so throughout the flight.
So every 20 minutes, I walked from the back of the plane to the front. Checking on her. Talking with her husband and reassuring him. As the flight went on. she would show more and more signs of being responsive. A hand would twitch. Her eyes would barely open then close. So on and so forth.
At one point, the captain asked to speak with me through the phone. There was a medical team on the ground, and they wanted the facts of what I found which I told them. They decided it wasn’t terms to ground the plane in an emergent fashion and to continue on. So I continued my checks.
I told the flight attendant to let me know the absolute last moment that I could check on her before our descent. So she did. I walked up and I asked for some oxygen. I put the woman on oxygen just to oxygenate her (don’t ask why, she never stopped breathing and her vitals were stable the entire time). I just thought it would be a good idea now so when we landed, EMS was set to board and take her off first. So I do this and I walk back to my seat.
As I bucked up, I hear a yell and I see the flight attendant running up the aisle frantic. I throw my belt off, and sprinted towards her husband, who’s holding his head in the aisle of first class crying. I got to the front and the lady had stopped breathing suddenly. Her fingertips were blue. Her pulse was nose ‘threaded’ (not a solid pulse. But very very weak and not regular).
I ask the attendant to go grab the first aid bag and ask for a bag mask (a device we use to seal a patients mouth on a plastic mouth piece and then squeeze a bag to deliver oxygen). She brings it to me and the thing is all zip-tied shut. The plane began to descend and I was off balance but I just grabbed the kit, and literally tore it open with my hands. As were descending, I took my left foot and lodged it on the chair in front of me so as not to get thrown forward as the plane would land and subsequently brake. I’m bagging/ventilating the lady with the bag, but her pulse started to worsen. I then took my other leg and kicked the seat of her chair back so to get her as ‘flat’ as possible to do chest compressions and CPR. As we land and I give a few compressions, the lady’s blue body turns pink and she lets out a huge gasp and her eyes shoot open. I continue to oxygenate her as I tell her everything’s going to be fine.
We land and the captain instructs everyone to stay in their seat. EMS comes on board, and I give them the story of what happened. Her husband hugged me and wept on my shoulder as they took her off. I then walked back to the back of the plane to the shock and awe of the entire plane.
Old ladies said ‘God bless you’ and ‘Thank you!’ as I walked back.
Honestly, I felt so numb. All I wanted to do was cry myself because of the emotional roller coaster that was. I’m just glad she survived and did well afterwards.
Oh Wait, That’s Me
“I was three months out of nursing school when I was on a flight coming back from Scotland. Was dozing off when I heard one of the flight attendants call for a doctor or medical professional on board to go to the front. I was REALLY hoping someone would stand up, but when no one did I remember thinking, Oh no. I’M the medical professional.
I remember as I started walking up the aisle, I was getting odd looks from people. Mind you, I look young for my age, and it doesn’t help the fact I was without makeup and wearing an oversized Batman sweatshirt. They were probably thinking, ‘Whose child is this, and why is she going up there?’
Turns out a flight attendant was experiencing a seizure, and the others were scared. Understandable, they can look quite frightening. All you can really do is turn them to the side, loosen any tight clothing, and wait for it to pass. Poor guy eventually came out of it, was very groggy.
I remember another flight attendant pulled me to the side and said, ‘Flight control needs to know if we should divert.’
I about passed out myself. They were waiting for ME to say whether they should divert an entire plane? Of course, it wasn’t necessary as long as he didn’t have another one. Since he hadn’t had a history of them, I did request paramedics to be there when we landed for him. Somehow I managed to get back to my seat after making sure he was okay without them noticing how shaky I was.”
Good Time To Break That Rule
“I was on a flight back from France when the call rang out on the plane, asking if anyone was a doctor. The man in the seat ahead of me raised his hand and a flight attendant came over. She hurriedly told him that a little girl several rows ahead was having a tonic clonic seizure and was unresponsive.
I just-so-happened to overhear this conversation. My heart sunk, as my sister has epilepsy, and I know how hard a tonic clonic seizure can be on the brain. At that moment, I really just wished I could help, but I was a second year social work student at the age of 19 with no medical knowledge, and we were flying over the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, and the doctor looked worried as heck.
Then I remembered what I had on my carry-on. Benzos. A lot of them. I was stocked up because I had never flown over the ocean before, and I had a very understanding doctor who knew of my health anxiety. And because my sister has seizures, I knew that this anti-anxiety med can also act as a quick abortive medication for seizures.
The doctor got out of his seat and started heading to the little girl who everyone could now hear making noises at the front.
Hurriedly, I called out ‘Hey, wait!’ and ripped open my purse.
I practically threw the medication bottle at him and said plainly, ‘Use however many you need to.’
He looked very surprised. I was a 19-year-old college student in sweats, tossing him like the one medication that could be helpful in this scenario, as the plane was midway between France and Canada.
Guy came back after about twenty minutes, and handed me back a (lighter) pill bottle. The girl was fine and was taken care of when we landed. I know they say to never share pharmaceuticals, but this was definitely a time to break that rule.”
“A Jarring Experience”
“I’ve been on two trans-Atlantic flights in my life. About halfway through the first one, a woman in her 50s was standing in line for a bathroom in the middle of the plane. My family was in the first row behind the divider and I was in the chair closest to that aisle, starring at my computer. I see something small go flying by the edge of my screen and look up to her hitting the floor. My dad was next to me and I shook the heck out of him him and whipped the privacy screen off the flight attendants chairs.
So this lady just crashed and burned in the middle of the aisle, and the stewards and my dad are calling out for help. Thankfully, there’s some sort of doctor a few rows up who helps out. She was unconscious for a bit, but after maybe 30 minutes of keeping her on the floor, checking what they could with the equipment available. I think they had a defib in the first aid equipment. I assume it was required, but I honestly don’t know if they had it out or used it. She ends up back in her seat with the doctor seated next to her, and constant attention from the stewards from the rest of the flight. We landed at Heathrow and she was first off, I’m told to waiting EMS.
It was definitely a jarring experience, but the weird thing to me was that nobody else really seemed to notice. In their defense, it was the middle of the night and there were very few lights on in the cabin, but I didn’t hear or see anyone else do or say a thing. Turns out the thing I saw fly by the corner of my screen was a wall-installed ashtray she tried to grab as she started to fall, and honestly, I’m not sure I would have noticed either if not for that.”
“Immediately Breathed A Sign Of Relief”
“I was on a decent sized plane and heard the ‘Is there a doctor onboard?’ announcement.
I was very early in my career, so I just sat there but when no one else got up, I did. I was seated in the last row of the plane. I followed the flight attendant up to first class where I saw an elderly woman slumped in her seat. I was immediately worried about a stroke. I quickly asked her husband and daughter if she was on any certain medications or if she was diabetic.
The husband spoke up and said although she wasn’t a big drinker, she had a two of the free first class mixed drinks. Then the daughter piped up and said she had given her mom one of her own benzodiazepines (Xanax, Ativan type medications) before takeoff to ease her preflight nerves.
I immediately breathed a sign of relief and let them know she was just hammered. The pilot, through a flight attendant, asked if he needed to land. I said no, and I recommended to the family they take her to an urgent care if not better by landing.
I then returned to my seat with no fanfare. It made the older gentleman sitting beside me angry that I didn’t even get a thanks, so he stopped the attendant and asked if the doctor didn’t even get a comped drink for his efforts. The attendant paused and then offered me something. I declined but thanked the man for his concern. I never heard anything else, and they were long off the plane by the time I exited from the last row.”
“My parents are both doctors, so they get this a lot.
One time they were on a flight from Switzerland to New York, and they get the dreaded announcement. At that point my mother was still in school, but my father was already an attending (that’s the word for a doctor who completed his residency).
My father goes up to help, it’s an older Russian (this is important) lady, who keeps crying out, ‘Oy, oy!’ and holding her chest.
Obvious signs of a heart attack. The Russian lady can’t speak a word of English, and is accompanied by her daughter who barely speaks English. My father gets my mother, who incidentally spent a couple of months teaching in Russia (she left a couple of weeks before the Soviet Union fell), and she is able to communicate with the daughter through her rudimentary Russian and the daughters rudimentary English.
Turns out, this woman had a long history of heart issues, and this was her 4th or 5th heart attack. My father decides that the plane needs to land, the only problem is that the plane was just over the Atlantic. He goes into the cockpit, and discusses with the pilot what to do.
They decided to turn back, and land in Shannon, Ireland. Why Shannon? Because it is the westernmost city is Europe with both an international airport and a major hospital. He gets on the radio and makes contact with ground control to arrange an ambulance, paramedics, and then goes back to sit with the woman (who is now on oxygen and medicine) until she’s taken off the plane.
The land in Shannon, woman and daughter go to the hospital. Everyone is treating my parents like they’re heroes, and my father gets kind of mad. This is literally what he signed up for by becoming a doctor. In the end, he just dealt with it until the end of the flight.
A couple of days later he called the airline to find out what happened to the woman, she survived. So all’s well that ends well.”
Interesting Start To The Weekend
“I had just finished two weeks of night float, and was travelling from Dallas to Denver. I was passed out on the flight (hadn’t slept that day yet), and was excited for my weekend of camping, hiking, rock climbing. Anyways, I was awakened with the flight attendant over my seat talking to the man beside me. He was telling her he felt weak and sweaty. Flight attendant goes to get help, so I get up and start asking him questions, symptoms, medical history, etc. Flight attendant came back and asked me to step aside, I told her I was a doctor and can help.
We laid the man down, gave him aspirin, some orange juice. He was either just dehydrated and syncopal, or was having a heart attack. They did bring the med kit but FYI, the stethoscope sucks so it was impossible over the roar of the airplane to take a proper blood pressure. We were only 20 minutes away so when we landed, EMS came to take him out. Didn’t do much but just monitored him. Thought that was a good way to start my weekend.
On the last day of my bachelor party, while we were packing up the camp site, a woman was seen running down the park asking for medical help. Turns out that some woman beside her campsite had a seizure. So we run over and found an older lady laying on the ground with some blood on her lips. Seems like she had a history of seizures but hadn’t had one in years. They called EMS, I helped calm down her kids, made sure she was stable. EMS came and got her out. It was definitely a fun bachelor party but I could’ve gone without the rendering aid sandwich.”