Heroes in the Sky

Inside our hospitals and clinics we’re prepared for medical emergencies. If you work in an emergency department it is likely part of your daily rhythm. As medical professionals, we’re trained in CPR, but have you ever thought about having to use that skill set on a commercial airplane as it is just seconds from takeoff?

Initially, Sandra Peña, a registered nurse and nursing supervisor at CHRISTUS Santa Rosa Alamo Heights in San Antonio didn’t pay much attention to the very last passenger to board her flight from Orlando to San Antonio. He was out of breath, but she thought maybe he had to sprint to catch the flight.

The crew made the overhead announcements and as the plane began to rev up, Sandra heard an unusual noise behind her. It sounded like a cough, but wasn’t.

The combined efforts of a group of strangers—many of whom had never met—saved the passenger’s life and provide convincing evidence of the power of teamwork.

Dr. Thomas Lee, Press Ganey chief medical officer, along with Sandra and a plane full of doctors, nurses and other medical professionals happened to be on flight 249. These clinicians were all on the same flight because some were headed to a medical conference in San Antonio and others were returning to San Antonio after attending a different medical conference in Orlando.

Sandra and her team from CHRISTUS Santa Rosa Hospital – Alamo Heights in San Antonio were at the conference in the Sunshine State to accept top honors as Press Ganey Commitment to Excellence Award winners. The Commitment to Excellence Award recognized Alamo Heights as a health care organization that demonstrates continuous improvement in quality, patient experience and employee engagement.
The plane was stacked in the patient’s favor with award-winning and highly respected medical professionals. The “code” lasted 20 minutes and happened seamlessly.

While a flight attendant was retrieving the onboard defibrillator, Dr. Andrea T. Esch, an anesthesiologist from Buffalo, New York, delivered oxygen to the nonresponsive patient via a bag valve mask as another passenger delivered hard chest compressions.
Dr. Esch recently described on a Press Ganey website what happened next:

“One of the flight attendants brought the defibrillator, we attached it to the gentleman and we got the message, ‘shock recommended,’ which honestly I’m not used to hearing. In training simulations with the AED, you never get that message,” she commented.

The compressions and oxygen delivery were stopped so Dr. Lee could defibrillate the passenger. Dr. Esch said, “We got a pulse and continued to bag the patient with just room air, and then he began to cough.” By that time, the pilot had stopped the plane and EMS had arrived to remove the passenger.

He had regained consciousness and Sandra says the most interesting thing happened. The very sick man was apologizing to everyone for delaying the flight. “He almost lost his life and he’s apologizing to us. We were just so thankful he was alive.”
“The teamwork was nothing short of inspiring. It was the smoothest code I’ve ever been part of,” according to Dr. Lee. As a practicing cardiologist in one of the nation’s leading health care systems, this is no small accomplishment.

Sandra agreed. The flight attendants were remarkable and got the plane stopped. Passengers moved away to give the space we needed.
The one thing that was missing? No one knew truly what the outcome of the passenger was. Would he live? Was he ok? Who was he?
No one knew.

That is until someone from Southwest Airlines reached out to the passenger to find out how he was doing. Stay tuned for more news on the patient’s condition and a planned reunion between the passenger and the team of medical professionals/passengers who saved his life.

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