April 10, 2010

Medical Emergency

I was responding to our instructions to “Descend now, cross MOOSE at FL 240” when I heard the cabin emergency signal. I turned up the volume on the intercom in time to hear one of the flight attendants in the back alerting the others that we had a passenger in distress near the last row. A man in his 40’s had lost consciousness after standing near his seat and hit his head on the way to the floor. One of the flight attendants tried to break his fall, but was injured in the process. The captain instructed me to declare a medical emergency and handle the flying and ATC communications while he took over coordination with the flight attendants and our company dispatch.

As we learned later from exiting passengers, the flight attendants were doing an excellent job with their patient and were both calm and collected as they performed life saving duties. They are trained for this sort of thing, but situations like this are uncommon. Normally, the flight attendants are seen passing out drinks and trying to make everyone’s flight a little more comfortable, but they are trained for much more. Even on a routine flight, they perform many safety related duties that are not recognized by the average traveler, but when called upon in an emergency, they are invaluable.

In the cockpit, it seemed like the interphone chime sounded a hundred times in the 15 minutes it took us to get on the ground. Every time there was a change in the passenger’s condition, we were notified. The Captain was in constant contact with the flight attendants, company dispatch, and the “on-call physician” available to us via phone patch. Passenger condition, medical history, medications…everything was important. You never know how these things are going to turn out and I've seen them go both ways…but you have to assume and prepare for the worst. Sometimes you do everything in your power to get what you think is a dying passenger on the ground only to have them walk off the jet in seemingly perfect health. Other times, it’s the real deal and a life is in the balance.

Once I uttered the word “emergency” to ATC, we were immediately cleared direct to our destination and others in our path were given vectors to clear the way. I increased our speed to Mach .80 and transitioned to 330 knots. As far as the flying was concerned, everything we were doing felt out of the norm, so I had to be very careful to plan my descent and speed reduction to avoid any mistakes. I wanted to fly as fast as possible and delay my speed reduction as late as I could, but had to plan carefully, and when it came to the approach, flew normal speeds and utilized standard procedures in order to insure the safety of all those on board. We had our choice of runways and were cleared direct to the outer marker from about 80 miles out. As we broke out of the clouds at about 1000 ft, we could see that there was a line of planes awaiting our arrival. All departures were suspended as we approached the airport to insure there would be no delays for our flight.

After landing, the tower cleared us directly to our gate where paramedics, passenger service personnel and a ground crew were ready and waiting. As we approached the gate, I asked our passengers to remain seated until the paramedics had entered the aircraft and assessed the situation. Thankfully for all involved, this situation ended well. The ill passenger was removed from the aircraft and taken to the hospital where he was treated and released. The injured flight attendant had a bruised hand and will recover fully. To be honest, the whole thing was a little anti-climactic. After we arrived at the gate, my job was essentially over. It seemed like there should be more for me to do, but there wasn’t. I thanked everyone involved, packed up my bags and headed for home.

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