Wednesday, December 11, 2013

A Dilemma 35,000 Feet High

   I just got off a connecting flight to my next interview, and unlike all of my other flights so far, this flight was quite eventful.  About 20 minutes into the 2-hour flight, a flight attendant called out over the loudspeaker for any "doctors or other health professionals".  My adrenaline immediately started pumping.

   I'm thinking, "Should I say something?  I mean, I'm only a 4th year medical student.  I know some stuff, but I don't know as much as an experienced, licensed physician.  Although, I suppose I know a lot more than a flight attendant or lay-person.  Are there any other physicians on the plane? There are three other 4th year medical students on the plane too (one classmate, and two others that I met just prior to the flight), so all together, we equal a real doctor, right?  Even if one of us does volunteer to help, would they want our help even though we don't officially have our M.D. and don't have licenses yet?  In addition, I think that some Good Samaritan Laws protect those that provide assistance, but I think that some don't cover "non-medical professionals".  Could we potentially be sued since we are just MS4s?"

   But before I could even decide whether or not to go up, an obese, greasy guy in sweats sitting near me immediately hit his call button, heading up to the front of the plane.  I think to myself, "Oh, I suppose he is a doctor!  Well, I'll watch from here and see if he needs help."

   A few minutes later, my classmate (who is going into Orthopedic Surgery) walks up, saying that the flight attendant informed him that the guy volunteering was a respiratory therapist.  He went up to the front of the plane to provide assistance, and together, him and the RT assessed the patient*, put her on oxygen, and they decided she was stable enough to make it the entire flight.

   I'm glad everything worked out okay, but I felt so guilty afterward.  I mean, I wasn't trying to avoid helping, I just figured they didn't need me.  I thought that guy who volunteered first was a doctor since he was so gung-ho about it.  I suppose I should have just asked him if he needed help, just in case.  Oh well, woulda coulda shoulda.  I know there are a lot of people out there who like to show off that they have the tiniest bit of medical training, and though well-intentioned, I think these people can be more harmful than helpful at times.  I guess I'm trying to avoid being one of these people, though I'm almost a doctor... so I really do sorta know what I'm doing, right?

   Anyone else ever been in a situation like this?  What would you have done?

* She ended up being an elderly woman with CHF who was having severe anxiety


  1. I had this happen on a flight recently, and I slunk lower in my seat until (thankfully) a very senior looking doctor got up and helped the woman. I think it's natural to feel freaked out in these situations, because there is no control over the situation and none of the backup (nurses, other doctors, ICU, etc.) that you are used to having. I hope I never have something serious happen when I'm the only medical professional on the plane!

  2. I actually go over ACLS algorithms in my head every time I fly because I'm scared of something like this happening! I'd like to think that I'd volunteer to help, but at this point so early in my career I know I'd be so scared to admit that I'm a doctor. Hopefully in the future it'll be second nature to jump into action!

  3. I do what Tanya does every time I go somewhere where I might need to help out. I had an experience at the end of my second year where my friends and I found a girl seizing late at night with no help. Luckily we just had to get her in recovery position and call the ambulance (it was at a mall), but it was pretty scary at the time.

  4. The dilemma won't go away when you become licensed. Few non-emergency docs really feel comfortable hitting that call light. The emergency docs actually have CME classes that show what's on the plane, and we know how to use it! You can actually run a pretty full code on a plane.

    Anyway, great blog. It helped me kill some time on a slow shift in the middle of the night.