Up in the air: a medical emergency at 36,000 feet

It’s a scene we’ve witnessed played out on countless movies and television dramas: at cruising altitude, on a packed capacity flight, someone falls ill. Following medical emergency protocol, the flight crew puts a call out over the onboard speaker system:

“Ladies and gentleman, is there a doctor on board?”

Fortunately, this time, there was. And it was none other than Tangiers International’s medical director Dr John Quinn.

Dr Quinn, who was travelling for business with a colleague from Tangiers, immediately made himself known to the crew and was escorted to one of the plane’s bathrooms where he found a fellow passenger, visibly unwell and in distress.

The woman, who had suffered a fall a day earlier, had suddenly become light-headed and had started vomiting – symptoms which could just as easily indicate concussion as they could a multitude of much more benign ailments.

Dr Quinn, who has worked with Tangiers International since 2012, asked her about her symptoms and medical history while he checked vital signs in an attempt to exclude any immediate threats to her well-being. As he worked, airline crew assisted by providing information and access to onboard medical equipment.

With a background in emergency medicine and a career operating in some of the world’s most hostile locations, the doctor was well-placed to offer not only medical expertise, but also a calming influence in an understandably stressful situation.

Thankfully, the woman was not in any immediate danger and was able to access medical treatment once the plane landed. Dr Quinn paid tribute to the flight crew who he described as “very supportive” during the situation.

The incident, which took place in October, shines a spotlight on the role of medical professionals when emergency situations develop in public places.

Doctors, nurses, paramedics and other medically-trained staff can find themselves coming to the aid of a member of the public in the most unlikely of situations – a cinema, a school sports day, and, of course, on an aeroplane. This civic responsibility means medical professionals can often be thrust into a developing situation with little notice.

And for those who travel regularly, as Dr Quinn does, this can be a surprisingly common event. In fact, he has been called on a whopping seven times to provide first-aid treatment or assessment to a member of the public since becoming a medical doctor.

Dr Quinn had even given a talk on ‘in-flight medical emergencies’ at the Aviation Health Conference in London a week earlier and had taken part in a small working group aimed at improving clinical standards during exactly this type of event.

He said: “It can be common if you travel a lot. A majority of issues are mild, but occasionally there is a true emergency that requires massive support and response.”

Dr Quinn, a US-national who works in both the UK and the Czech Republic, specialises in facilitating medical care in particularly remote or poor areas, often racked by conflict or political turmoil.

He explained that administering aid to a member of the public in a non-medical setting such as an aircraft was an accepted part of being a doctor and that support systems were in place to assist if the medical emergency exceeded someone’s expertise.

“You are expected to act within your own scope of practice and if you need help, there is an on-call medical support system that you can contact while on board to offer support, advice and direction,” he said.