…from Hawaii last February.
Unless you have had the misfortune to become ill onboard an airplane, or witness the illness of a nearby passenger, you may not be aware of the large number of medical emergencies that occur at 35,000 feet. Airlines are not required to report them.
Here’s what happened to me:
On a sleepy flight from Hawaii to San Francisco, I was disturbed by a minor kerfuffle in the aisle a couple of seats behind me. It was evident that there was a very sick passenger because the flight attendants began running around looking fraught, wringing their hands, and fiddling with oxygen tanks (so not necessary). The plane sported the standard FAA-required medical kit, including an automated external cardiac defibrillator, a non-working stethoscope, a thermometer, and a blood pressure cuff (useless without the stethoscope). They also had aspirin and acetaminophen.
I don’t necessarily feel it’s the airline’s responsibility to be a flying ER, and provided the equipment they have onboard actually functions and attendants know how to use it, they have a good chance of caring for most onboard illnesses. Additionally, several major airlines have established contacts on the ground to guide them through the process of caring for a sick passenger and getting that passenger to the hospital once landed. In the case of my flight from Hawaii to San Francisco, flight attendants resembled Keystone Kops more than trained professionals. No apparent contact with doctors on the ground was made.
This left a 24-year-old woman thrashing about on the floor, moaning and vomiting, sweating and complaining of stomach pain. She related a history of ulcers. After some prodding, she also revealed having eaten day-old tacos which had been stored on the dash of a car while she and friends surfed on their last day in Hawaii. To make matters worse, she had taken two aspirin that morning, because someone told her it would make her tan better! Bless her, she wanted to sport a tan upon her return to Sweden.
Dr. “enlightenedhorsemanship” diagnosed irritation of the ulcer in addition to acute food poisoning. No use trying to get a baseline blood pressure without a stethoscope, so I only had a pulse and temp to work with. No temp, slightly elevated pulse.
And now for the risky part: it’s a tricky question of whether it’s a good idea to assist another passenger on board an airplane. Horror stories abound of doctors and good samaritans being slapped with lawsuits after trying to help victims of sudden onset of illness. Not to mention the risks associated with being sprayed with vomit.
I began thinking of what I could realistically offer this girl, given that the flight attendants were completely unprepared in terms of both expertise and equipment. As an equine massage therapist, I am a student of Tellington TTouch®, which offers several suggestions for improving gastrointestinal distress and symptoms of shock.
Crammed into the aisle between the bathroom and the galley, with nothing but my hands and a reckless willingness to help, I had only these tools to work with. About two minutes after I started earwork, she settled down. No more thrashing, moaning, vomiting. No more shooting stomach pains. The young woman got so excited about suddenly feeling better that she insisted on sitting up and having her photo taken with an oxygen mask and all her new best friends, the flight attendants and me. This was not a good idea. When she inevitably felt sick again, I went back to earwork, alternating with Lick of the Cow’s Tongue TTouch, Clouded Leopard TTouch, Lying Leopard TTouch, and Abalone TTouch all over her torso and as close to her stomach as she would allow. I also did Hair Slides when possible. No doubt there were several other TTouches I could have used, but in the heat of the moment, I relied on those I have a lot of experience with. I am studying to be a TTouch® equine practitioner, and am not particularly knowledgeable about TTouch® for people. In hindsight, some sort of jury-rigged belly lift might have been a good idea, provided she didn’t sock me in the face.
What little I did for her was effective, and she was a great deal more comfortable. It was a leap of faith to try TTouch® on this young woman, but I’m glad I did. It enabled me to keep her calm, quiet, and comfortable for almost three hours of the flight, and during landing, after which she was whisked away by EMS.
Flight attendants and pilots were grateful for the care I offered because it allowed a return to normal functioning of the plane, though the airline was indifferent. I was summarily bumped from my next flight, which caused a ten hour delay. After sending in a standard compensation form for offering assistance during an in-flight emergency, I received a grand total of 10,000 frequent flyer miles. Not a lot given what I risked.
It’s a good thing I wasn’t in it for the miles. Airlines might want to consider what they are asking of their passengers by failing to have effective protocols for dealing with illness. Putting the burden—and the risk—on paying passengers to care for one another in a medical crisis seems both unfair and ill-advised.
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