Heroes in the Sky: The Reunion

If you’ve ever been on a commercial flight and worried about what would happen if someone were to suffer from a true medical emergency, this story should reassure you.

Frank Gabler could have suffered from a tragic medical emergency, hundreds of thousands of feet over the southeastern part of the United States, but he didn’t.

Before the flight ever took off, a well-respected nurse educator from CHRISTUS Santa Rosa Hospital-Alamo Heights in San Antonio had some keen insight. She wasn’t on duty. She wasn’t in her true element. There was no wearing of a hospital badge, a white lab coat or a stethoscope hanging around her neck. Yet, right there on a plane full of strangers, lost in their own thoughts, she never lost her ability to assess and deliver exceptional medical care.reunion


She heard the man behind her making a strange noise almost like a gurgle. The plane was just two seconds from the wheels leaving the runway and taking flight when Sandra peered across the back of her seat and noticed a man in obvious distress. Interrupting a plane’s takeoff isn’t an easy thing to do, but Sandra Pena, RN, didn’t think twice. She shouted, “Stop the plane! This man is having a seizure.” She really didn’t know. She just knew he wasn’t doing well.

Turns out, Frank Gabler was in cardiac arrest. And, of all the planes and all the airlines he chose to take that day from Orlando to San Antonio he was on the right flight. Statistically speaking, people in cardiac arrest have a survival rate of 5 to 10 percent outside of a hospital.

But, this flight was stacked in his favor. At least 25 percent of the plane was full of medical professionals from across the country.

Sandra and her team from CHRISTUS 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.

Also on the plane happened to be the top doctor with Press Ganey, Dr. Thomas Lee. A graduate of Harvard University and Cornell University Medical School, Dr. Lee is also a leading cardiologist in Boston. He worked hand-in- hand with Sandra and Dr. Andrea Toufexis Esch, a clinical professor of anesthesiology based in Buffalo, New York.

“The group of people that gathered across a less than 2 feet of aisle was the best group of people to give someone a chance to feel well,” Dr. Toufexis Esch recounted. “There was no real leader in the situation, everyone spoke a common language. Everyone that needed to be there in Frank Gabler’s time of need was there. “

Right there. Right there in the aisle, the medical professionals were given an onboard defibrillator by an alert flight attendant. Dr. Lee used the defibrillator on Gabler. After five minutes of chest compressions, oxygen flow and the jolt from the defibrillator, Gabler was back. His color returned as did a pulse. He almost died. Something Gabler realized.

“I found myself in the same predicament as Lazarus. But, instead of Jesus coming to my rescue, he sent his angels.”

His angels are now his friends.

Almost two months since his heart attack, with tears in eyes , Gabler hurried past the travelers in the Southwest Terminal at the San Antonio International Airport and toward his saviors. He had bouquets of flowers and gratitude to deliver.

His daughter and son-in law watched the reunion, extremely thankful that the right people were there in their dad’s time of need.

Gabler doesn’t recall the details of the work to get his heart pumping again on the plane. He spent a few days in an Orlando, Florida intensive care unit and now carries a defibrillator inside him, a reminder of what happened on Flight 249.

No one on board on that day will forget what happened. Everyone is thankful that this story has such a happy ending because Frank’s story continues.