What to do during an in-air medical scare

Between boarding passes, baggage, schedules, and security, holiday travel can be harrowing. 

Even when you think you're safely in your seat, at your cruising altitude, there's always a chance that you or a fellow passenger could get sick.

Hudson resident Fred Slack says he doesn't worry.  "There's attendants there to help you or assist in any way possible...of course there's always a barf bag there if you need it."

Margaret, who traveled to Tampa from Johnson City, New York, said she does worry.  "There is such a diversified compliment of people that travel that quite often there is somebody on board."

And on one flight, that "somebody" was Stacy Bush.  She is a nurse at St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa. 

"All of a sudden there was a big gasp from up front in the airplane," she remembered.  That's when the attendants asked for help from a medical professional.  Stacy said a man was slumped over in his seat.

"He basically had some dehydration going on and needed some fluids, just to eat a little bit of something to recover," she recalled.

The events were a little more serious for Dr. David Orban.  He's an emergency room physician at Tampa General and is an associate professor at the University of South Florida College of Medicine. 

He rushed to help passengers on two flights.  "This was an elderly lady who was having chest pain at the time. She was diaphoretic and dizzy so we cleared a space by the door and laid her down."

Dr. Orban remembers continually checking her vital signs because there wasn't a lot of equipment on board.  "And we landed the plane in St. Louis and she was the first one off."

Then, a year ago, it happened again.  "We were going to California and a woman stood up and fell over, she was obviously having a seizure."

The passenger in need was sitting in the seat right in front of him.  This time, Dr. Orban discovered the plane's medical kit contained much more. 

"They have different size airways for pediatric and adults, they have a stethoscope, they have a IV fluid, they have epinephrine, they have albuterol inhalers for asthma," he continued.

During the both flights, Dr. Orban was in contact with MedAire, an in-flight medical advisory company based in Phoenix, Arizona.  MedAire provides experts around the clock to guide volunteers in the sky.  In 2014, they handled more than 36,000 in-flight cases. 

Still, Dr. Orban wishes for more, like anti-seizure meds and a way to monitor the heart.  "I personally would like to see a rhythm strip." 

MedAire's Dr. Paulo Alves says some European airliners do carry the extra meds.  Here at home, there's more concern about placing controlled substances on planes. 

While most don't have the capability to check heart rhythms, Dr. Alves says some kits do have EKG capabilities.  He says no plane should be more than two and a half hours away from landing, so there's a limit to what's needed on board. 

But there is one critical piece of life-saving equipment is now required to be inside every commercial airplane cabin: An automatic external defibrillator to jumpstart a heart that has stopped beating. 

Dr. Alves says even if the plane is small, in general, if an aircraft has a flight attendant, it will likely have an AED on board.