Sirven: Medical Emergency Gives Doctor A Dilemma During Flight

By Dr. Joseph Sirven
March 14, 2014

KJZZ commentator Dr. Joseph Sirven is a practicing physician and chairman of neurology at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale.


On a recent flight from Phoenix to Minnesota an overhead announcement woke me up from a nap.

“Is there a doctor on this flight?”

I felt it was a moral obligation to answer the call. A passenger had passed out, and my duty was to help the captain decide whether it was safe to continue on or if we needed to land the plane urgently.

So many questions rush through your mind during an onboard medical emergency. 

“What kind of crisis is this? What medical equipment is on board? Should we land?” and quite frankly, “Will I miss my connection?”

Although the chance of having an in-flight medical emergency is extremely low, this problem is no longer rare. A recent study has shown that the number of in-flight emergencies is increasing because of the steadily rising number of air travelers with acute and chronic illnesses that are now more mobile. In fact, I have answered the call at least five times in my career.

You might be surprised how difficult this volunteer job can be. Most airliners have an emergency medical kit that is stocked with stethoscopes, gloves, some aspirin and sometimes a little bit more if you are lucky, depending on the plane.

If you can't find what you need in the kit, you can always ask for help from other passengers. One colleague recently told me of a transatlantic flight where she tended to an onboard seizure and asked for Valium on THE 747’S PA system. She told me almost every row lit up the call light. Ding!

On- board emergencies are somewhat akin to performing a cappella with no musical accompaniment and no backup singers. It’s just you, the sick passenger and an audience of 200 souls. It is stressful.

As for my flight, I’m happy to report the passenger made it okay and we landed without delay.

The airline’s compensation for my efforts: a $2.00 drink coupon at the Minneapolis Airport...I’m not kidding. My personal reward: priceless.

KJZZ's Peter O'Dowd also reported on a local center in Phoenix that helps with airline emergency calls.