Is there a doctor on the plane?

What medical therapy is available when doctors answer the call?

What is it that doctors worry about when they’re flying? It’s not fear of flying. They know that travelling by air is safer than driving a car. Rather, it’s the possibility that they will hear a sudden announcement, “Is there a doctor on the plane?” This is when the brain shifts into high gear.

Every time it happens to me, it reminds me of my days of internship at the Montreal General Hospital. Interns took turns riding in the ambulance on emergency calls.

We never knew what we might encounter. But at least our feet were on terra firma, and we knew that on returning to the hospital specific expertise would be available.

But in the air, this announcement, particularly if it happens mid Atlantic, is accompanied by a feeling of loneliness and isolation. You wonder what type of medical problem you will encounter, and will there be sufficient medical facilities on board to handle it. One thing is certain. Most doctors, unless they’re working in a hospital Emergency Department, do not receive training in medical school on how to handle air-borne calls.

I’ve found myself in this situation several times. The last time, on a flight from Toronto to Vancouver, the call happened within an hour of take-off.

A male passenger with an allergy to peanuts had unwittingly eaten some, and was in dire respiratory distress.

Soon, you realize you are not quite alone.

At my request, the flight attendant easily located a syringe with epinephrine. After I injected the medication, the man, an engineer, recovered. But it became apparent he required a second injection, so I was seated beside him for the rest of the flight.

A recent report in the Canadian Medical Association Journal states that every year 2.75 billion people travel by air worldwide. In Canada, 133 million, a 27.3% increase since 2009.

No wonder this emergency call is heard more often in the air. The population of flyers is also aging, and many arrive on board with pre-existing disease. As well, flights are often longer.

Another factor is sometimes overlooked.

During a long flight, perhaps at 36,000 feet, there is slightly less oxygen in the cabin and lower relative humidity. This may affect those suffering from cardiovascular or respiratory diseases.

So how many people become ill while flying? Several North American airlines say one in 604 flights. Or, 16 medical events for every one million flyers.

So what medical therapy is available when doctors answer the call?

In Canada, automated external defibrillators are not mandatory. But Air Canada and WestJet provide them on some planes. Several standard medications are also available in the plane’s medical kit.

One common complaint to Air Canada is that the stethoscope is either broken or does not work!

This makes diagnosis more difficult with the background noise of the plane engines. And limited space in a plane for emergency care always hampers normal procedures.

Once, I felt even more alone when at sea I encountered a difficult diagnostic problem. Years ago on my first trip as a ship’s surgeon, I decided to remove the captain from command due to unusual circumstances.

This was one of the most agonizing decisions I’ve ever had to make, considering the consequences to passengers and staff. And the possibility of having made the wrong diagnosis.

Later on, while employed as a hotel physician in an isolated area, I learned another important, but embarrassing, medical lesson. An elderly guest, a Minister in his 90s, developed heart failure.

Since he was reluctant to leave the hotel I treated him with the usual drugs. At one point I was convinced his death was imminent. I decided to discontinue all medication. To my surprise he rallied! A few days later, he left for his home in Texas.

So whether you’re in the air, at sea, or on the ground, facing a medical emergency always increases the adrenaline. I’m about to take the train in a few days from Toronto to Vancouver. So far I’ve never been called to take care of anyone on a train! I’ll keep you posted.

For more information, go online to docgiff.com. For comments, email info@docgiff.com.

Just Posted

Johnny 2 Fingers and the Deformities play The Vat April 27th

Moose Jaw band is on a 39-day national tour from Quebec City to Vancouver

Council highlights

Council to fund Rimbey Boys and Girls Club for $15,000

WATCH: Second annual Our Best To You Craft Sale on now

Red Deerians can expect over 150 artisans, makers and designers

Red Deer RCMP look for James Holley on warrants

Holley is believed to be in possession of firearms

‘Battle of the Badges’ charity hockey game raises funds for Humboldt Broncos

Red Deer Emergency Services and RCMP will play hockey for a good cause

WATCH: ‘Battle of the Badges’ event raises money for Humboldt Broncos

Red Deerians get together at charity hockey tournament April 20th at Servus Arena

Austin Powers ‘Mini-Me’, Verne Troyer, dies at 49

Facebook page confirmed his death Saturday afternoon

Alberta man dead after snowmobile collision on B.C. mountain

The incident occurred on Boulder Mountain Friday morning

Speed Skating Canada fires coach Michael Crowe after investigation

Crowe was a coach on the American team from 1983 to 1991 and again from 1999 to 2006

5 things to know about the ongoing influx of asylum seekers in Canada

Number of illegal border crossings are up this year – as RCMP, military, politicians try to combat

Producer, DJ Avicii found dead at 28

Swedish-born artist Tim Bergling, was found in Muscat, Oman

Trudeau ends 3-country tour with global reputation, alliances intact

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau finds footing on the world stage after China and India controversies

Leafs’ Matthews has top-selling jersey, edging Crosby, McDavid: NHL

Austin Matthews jersey sales top Pittsburgh Penguins’ Sidney Crosby, Edmonton Oilers’ Connor McDavid

Victims grant may miss needy parents due to eligibility rules: report

Only 29 of 50 applicants between 2013 and 2017 received the grant across Canada, a federal report says

Most Read