In-Flight Emergency Calls Land In Phoenix

March 14, 2014

(Photo by Peter O'Dowd-KJZZ)
Dr. James Lindgren advises airline crew members during an in-flight emergency.

A US Airways flight to Phoenix was diverted to Houston on Tuesday when an 18-month-old baby on board had a seizure. When something like that happens there is a good chance the emergency call will come to the Phoenix-based MedLink dispatch center at Good Samaritan Hospital in Phoenix. It is one of the busiest centers in the United States that gives medical consultations to global travelers.

MedLink officials would not say if they received the call about the baby, but on a recent morning, Dr. James Lindgren did get a different call from a flight that was Phoenix bound. A passenger in his 40s fainted with an hour and a half to go before landing.

Lindgren started his assessment by asking if the passenger was alert. He quickly determined that with some fluids and observation, the sick passenger would be fine.

Last year this office received about 29,000 from airlines and private yachts in transit somewhere around the globe. Most of the cases were minor, according to the company. Fainting. Diarrhea. Vomiting. The company said diversions happened about once for every million passengers carried.

"We've had some scary cases people having strokes or heart attacks, and we've been able to divert planes and have people have really good outcomes," Lindgren said. "Sometimes it’s passengers, sometimes it can even be crew members or pilots." 

A 2013 study from the New England Journal of Medicine said about half the time a doctor is on board who volunteers to help, but even those doctors might have to call the dispatch center for extra help.

KJZZ commentator Dr. Joseph Sirven told us about his recent experience on a flight where he was asked to help a passenger.