The biggest worry for most of us who travel by air is usually whether or not our luggage will be lost.
But if you’ve ever experienced a medical emergency during a flight, as my companion did on a recent Frontier flight back to Denver from Seattle, a lost bag suddenly becomes a trite issue.
When a life possibly hangs in the balance of whether or not a trained doctor is on board, as well as the emergency training of the airline flight attendants and quality of in-flight medical kits, you realize a jetliner cruising at 30,000 feet really isn’t the best place to get sick.
First, I truly commend the outstanding customer service of Frontier employees, from the reservations clerk who dropped a $100 change fee on our tickets due to our medical need to get back to local doctors, to the ticket counter clerk who moved us to the front row of seats since Allison already was weakened by what we later learned was a worsening case of pneumonia.
A word to the wise. Your doctor should warn you, although they did not in our case, that if you are not feeling well in the first place, cancel your travel plans. If you already have a breathing problem even from a severe cold, airline travel worsens the condition because cabins are pressurized at 8,000 feet and have less oxygen. So now we know.
Once Allison joined me in Seattle, it didn’t take a medical degree for me to cancel our vacation plan to join friends on a sailing trip in the San Juan Islands. I could see Allison was fighting more than a nasty cold.
She did seem able to travel, and we quickly rebooked a flight home. About half way through the flight, however, some coughing took a change for the worse, and she began gasping to catch her breath. That’s when those front seats became important as I told the flight attendant Allison needed oxygen immediately.
I’m afraid other passengers did not get their second coffee or drinks on the flight as two flight attendants and a member of the flight crew transformed into an alert medical team, asking if a doctor was on board and making the call to a doctor on the ground for emergency advice.
Our sincere thanks go out to two extremely caring medical students from Vanderbilt University, who, once Allison was receiving oxygen, checked her vital signs, kept her (and me) calm and helped make the critical decision that her heart seemed fine and the flight could continue to Denver without having to divert to Salt Lake City.
When we landed, other passengers remained seated and calm as fire department paramedics boarded to help Allison off the plane and into the hands of a medical team waiting at the airport. After another check-over and good advice from paramedics, we knew the wisest move was the ambulance ride to the emergency room at the Anchutz Medical Pavilion of the University of Colorado Hospital in Aurora.
The incredible attention and medical treatment Allison received there for a very serious bout of pneumonia could be another column. Both of us are still talking about the unsurpassed quality of care at UCH.
While the Frontier staff performed at their best, the experience made me question the tools airlines have on board for emergencies in these times of cost-saving cutbacks.
When Allison was chilled during her breathing attack, it was another passenger’s coat, not an airline blanket, that kept her warm. Remember, most pillows and blankets have been removed from overhead bins.
The young doctors were frustrated by a stethoscope from the medical kit that was inadequate for them to listen to Allison’s condition. If she had been having a heart problem, this could have been serious.
Other doctors and even the World Medical Association have urged airlines to upgrade their medical emergency protocols. By law, airlines now must carry automatic external defibrillators, oxygen and medical kits. And some airlines carry extra, non-mandated medications.
In fact, Frontier did have an Albuterol inhaler, and that, with a glass of orange juice, eased Allison’s breathing.
As I looked for statistics on the number of medical emergencies on airlines I discovered the disturbing trend that the FAA doesn’t keep a master record of medical incidents. So the types of emergencies and how they were treated is not something being tracked or studied for improvements by the FAA. The FAA counters that once an airline customer leaves the aviation system, there “is not way for us to track the outcome.”
Really? An impossible task? Or just a desire to avoid some bad PR about the number of medical problems happening on flights?