Doctors Work Together on Plane to Help Passenger in Distress

Maria Schamis Turner

March 20, 2017

Jeffrey Aycock, DMD, was on a plane in conversation with a fellow passenger when he heard a ruckus a few rows behind him. He didn't know what was happening, but the former paratrooper, who served as a dentist in Afghanistan, said that his first instinct was to see what he could do to help.

Dr Jeffrey Aycock

The commotion turned out to be a frightened woman calling for a doctor because her husband, 74-year-old retired Air Force Colonel Thomas McCay, appeared to be losing consciousness.

The cry for help was answered by more than just Dr Aycock, who is chief resident in oral and maxillofacial surgery at the University of Texas Medical Branch–Galveston. In fact, if you were looking for a doctor, the Southwest Airlines flight from Atlanta to Houston was the place to be.

Dr Aycock's fellow passengers included a number of medical professionals returning home from the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology Meeting (AAAAI). Among those who came to the rescue were Lenora Noroski, MD, an allergist at the Texas Children's Hospital in Houston, who had been sitting next to Dr Aycock; Kristin Moore, MD, an allergist from the Texas Medical Center in Houston; and Andrew Grant, MD, program director of the allergy and immunology fellowship program at University of Texas Medical Branch–Galveston.

Col. McCay was cold and clammy to the touch and sweating profusely. His heart rate was low, and he was clearly delirious.

Dr David Corry

"It's amazing how much you can learn with a simple touch," said David Corry, MD, chief of immunology, allergy, and rheumatology at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, who was asked to join his fellow physicians by Dr Noroski. Whatever was going on, it was obvious that Col. McCay was not getting enough blood to his brain.

Dr Aycock managed to lay Col. McCay down across three seats, and the other doctors leapt into action.

What happened next was a remarkable display of teamwork, Dr Corry told Medscape Medical News. "Everybody self-ordered to get done whatever could be done."

Dr Moore and Dr Grant began to administer oxygen to the patient, Dr Aycock and Dr Corry, who has a background in pulmonary critical care, began to track the patient's heartbeat and blood pressure, and Dr Noroski worked to reassure the patient's wife.

The airline crew also jumped in to help, relaying information to both the captain (in case an emergency landing was needed) and an on-call physician on the ground.

Col. Thomas McCay

"It was pretty weird," said Col. McCay, recalling that as he came to on the plane, someone popped an aspirin in his mouth and told him to chew. He could hear the group of doctors talking around him, and said he felt more embarrassed than scared.

Although Col. McCay was obviously doing better, Dr Aycock stayed by his side as the plane descended into Houston, and the two of them bonded over their shared military background. "It was the perfect pairing," said Col. McCay, who reported that Dr Aycock has since called him at home to see how he is doing.

Col. McCay told Medscape Medical News that he is currently feeling fine and has seen his doctor for follow-up tests.

"We just want to thank everybody on the plane — the doctors, the crew, and our fellow passengers," he said.

Obligated to Help

"I really think that any physician who is in a situation like this is obligated to offer the care that they can," said Dr Grant.

Dr Andrew Grant

"We don't talk about this often, but a lot of physicians are frightened of becoming involved," he told Medscape Medical News. "But you do your best; that's about all a physician can ever do."

Dr Grant said he was particularly impressed with Dr Aycock's performance on the flight. "He was the team leader," Dr Grant explained. "His professionalism and abilities were incredible."

"I was just lucky to be part of a good team," said Dr Aycock. "It's wonderful to see people come together and work together."

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