Medical Professionals Share Their "Is There A Doctor On Board?" Stories

Medical Professionals Share Their "Is There A Doctor On Board?" Stories

It happens all the time in movies. Someone on the plane collapses with some unknown malady, and the nearest fellow-passenger shouts: "Help! Help! Is anyone here a doctor?"

Well, it turns out that doesn't just happen in the movies. It sometimes happens in real life. These folks recently went online to share their best "is there a doctor on board?" stories. Clear the aisle!

online-marketing-758535-unsplash-300x169.jpgPhoto by Online Marketing on Unsplash

20. Self Help

I was 19, and had just gotten my EMT. I was flying alone, and my dad had used his extra miles to upgrade my seat, which included a pass to the club lounge at the airport. Being in a country without a drinking age, I spent my two hour layover pounding drinks before stumbling down the gateway to catch my flight. Once I realized the drinks on the plane were complimentary too, I started chugging as fast as the flight attendants would refill my glass, eventually falling asleep watching Titanic.

I woke up to the PA system saying, "If there is a doctor or an EMT on board, please identify yourself to a crew member."

"Oh boy, someone must be in trouble, I should see if I can help."

I realized that someone was me when a flight attendant slipped on oxygen mask on my face. Apparently, I'd gotten up to go to the bathroom and passed out in the aisle.

After I identified myself as the EMT, they laughed, gave me some orange juice, and put me back in my seat where I slept the rest of the flight and got to go through customs just as the sickness set in.

alcohol-3797764-300x200.jpgImage by

19. Roadside Angel

My spouse is a physician. She got that call once on a plane. Luckily, it was on the way to one of her conferences, and a bunch of her colleagues were there and much more eager.

She did have to step up a few years back when we watched a truck fly by us on an icy highway, spin out in a bridge, and eject the driver through a door that popped open as it rolled.

She was literally holding this guy's skull together with her hands as she directed me, a nurse who stopped, and eventually emergency personnel. When she got back to our car covered in blood 30 minutes later, she told me frankly the odds of survival for the driver were minimal, though the only newspaper story I could find indicated he made it at least 24 more hours.

She had to toss those clothes, and clean off in a McDonald's restroom as we were heading to another flight. Luckily, the TSA and airline staff didn't catch that her hair and shoes were encrusted with fluids.

transportation-1495618-300x200.jpgImage by

18. Greenland, Yellow Skin

On a flight from Philadelphia to London, the flight attendant announces if there is a doctor on board, please press your call light. I waited a few seconds and when nothing happened, I reluctantly pressed the button (I hate working). The passenger was complaining of chest/upper abdominal pains. We were on an American Airlines Boeing 777 which showed a map of where we were. At this point we were just over the southern tip of Greenland.

I do a quick exam of the passenger and conclude he most likely is having a bout of acute hepatitis (jaundiced under tongue and eyes, upper right quadrant pain, pulse fast but not tachycardia). I needed to get the patient a little more comfort and asked if they had seats that fully reclined. The flight attendant said they do in first class. So we get upgraded for the rest of the flight. I don't call an emergency and we land at Heathrow without incident. Paramedics arrive to take him to the hospital; I continue on through customs.

I think nothing of it except six months later, I get a letter in the mail from the flight surgeon of AA thanking me and giving me 50,000 frequent flyer miles, which was good for round trip domestic travel. That was nice of them. But I didn't make them land a full plane in Greenland, so I guess they got off cheap.

greenland-3932514-300x194.jpgImage by

17. Turn This Plane Around

Not me, but my mom - both times on planes.

The first time, the guy was having a panic attack, and she sat with him for the rest of the flight. The flight crew was pretty rude and asked to see her 'doctor card' before allowing her to talk to him (not sure what they were asking for -I think she showed them an old prescription pad she had in her purse).

The second time we were also on a flight, and the man in front of her passed out. His wife started screaming, and she reached a hand around to take his pulse. He didn't have a pulse, and as we were still taxiing she turned to the flight attendant (who had come over when the screaming started) and told her to turn the plane around. Pretty freaking epic, mom.

There was actually a happy ending as for whatever reason his heart restarted, and he started breathing again. They did turn the plane around, he and his family were taken off (and presumably rushed to an emergency room). After this, the man who was sitting behind us told her she had very good control of the situation for a nurse. She's an MD, and I thought she was going to kill him.

jets-1553937-300x123.jpgImage by


16. Pretty Poor Company

I used to be a surgical ODP (working in operating theatres). I was going on vacation by plane to Europe, and the call came for a doctor on board over the PA. No one stood up, and they called again. I figured I'd offer to help if I could...

After letting the crew know I had life support training but was not a doctor, they brought me to an elderly man who was passed out slumped forward. His wife was hysterical and crying. I squeezed into the seat next to him and checked for a pulse in his neck and wrist but couldn't feel any. I listened to his mouth and undid his shirt buttons to check for respiratory motion. None.

Now, I'm realizing this guy is dead. He feels cold to the touch, no pulse, no breathing, no response to pain. The crew want me to call him as deceased so they can start their protocols. I tell them that, yup, he's dead, and they say, "Thanks. Now, as the only medically trained person on board, would you mind sitting next to the body until we land?"

They literally put a blanket over him and swapped me into his wife's seat. I sat the rest of the flight (only about 30 minutes) next to a dead guy.

I didn't get any recognition or compensation. And I even spent an extra 3 hours at the destination airport to fill in forms and make a statement.


15. Glucose To The Rescue

Didn't happen to me but happened to my dad (internal medicine doctor) on his flight to Alaska.

They did the whole "is there any medical professionals on board" thing and my dad just sat there for a minute hoping that another person would get up and help (pops doesn't like a bunch of attention geared towards him). They did the announcement again and still nobody, so pops got up and went to the back where the guy was almost passed out on the floor.

Apparently the guy recently had back surgery, had taken some pain medicine but forgot to eat, which I guess caused his blood sugar to drop. Pops did his doctoring thing which pretty much consisted of him telling the flight attendants to get the person as much orange juice as he wanted. Once the guy felt better the flight attendants started offering my dad steaks and free drinks. He said no to all the fancy stuff and opted for a soda.

My uncle, who he went to visit, is a pilot and he told my dad that if he didn't help, they would have had to reroute the plane to the nearest airport, get all the passengers new tickets to their destination which would have cost the airline tons of money.

A few weeks after the incident, pops got a packet in the mail from the airline for 2 free round trip tickets anywhere in the US.

He's a good man.

fresh-orange-juice-1614822-300x200.jpgImage by

14. You Did A Placement

I was returning for my second year of medical school and a flight attendant came on the PA asking if there was a doctor on board. Since I was only a student, I sat in my place. A few minutes later, the request was asked again and I thought that I should at least see what can be done. I told a flight attendant that I was only a student and going into my second year and the flight attendant took me to the business class where a woman had passed out and was slowly regaining consciousness. Inside, I was thinking, holy crap, I haven't even seen a patient yet and here I am having to take care of one.

The woman just had a falling spell and had hit her head. A few moments later, a doctor showed up and told me to check her eyes to look for signs of a concussion, get her pulse, talk to her, and administer oxygen. He did the paperwork. A few minutes later, the woman was able to get up and go back to her seat and the doctor said I wasn't needed anymore.

The woman was fine, no concussion, very responsive, pulse was a little on the low side. After landing at our destination, she was taken to a hospital for further examination and I caught my connecting flight...

university-105709-1-300x225.jpgImage by

13. What Are We Supposed To Do?

OK -- this happened not to me but to my boss a number of years ago when I was a post-doc. He was a prostate cancer surgeon, and a darn good one.

We were taking a flight to a conference on prostate cancer, and someone on the plane had a heart attack. They did the whole "is there a doctor in the plane?" thing, and he came forward. I saw the look on his face, because WTF are you going to do at 30,000 feet with no equipment, especially when you specialize in another whole part of the body?

He checked the guy, confirmed the problem, had him take his heart pills, and had them land the plane. The guy survived, but really, calling for a doctor under a lot of those situations isn't much use beyond basic help and diagnosis. It's not like any doctor is qualified to cure any person suffering from any problem.

first-responders-3323385-2-300x200.jpgImage by

12. Eye Spy

My wife and I were on a plane and they asked for a doctor. She is an eye doctor. I kept telling her to volunteer, but she refused until she found out it was actually (somehow) an eye injury.


11. The Humble Savior

A friend of mine who's a surgeon was on board a flight in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean when a baby suffered an asthma attack. The parents had checked the baby's medication in their luggage, and there was only an adult inhaler in the cabin area. My friend cobbled together an emergency nebulizer and saved the baby's life. Here's an ABC news story about the incident.

He's a really humble guy, but has done amazing things. He was co-inventor of a simulator to train surgeons to do robotic surgery, and he has done monumental charitable work in his home country of Kashmir.

asthma-1147735-1-300x200.jpgImage by


10. Is Anyone Not A Doctor?

This happened to me.

It was a red-eye flight, I spent the first few hours in the daze of an almost sleep that wouldn't quite take hold. The last time I looked at my watch I could guess we were still over water, or possibly past the sea and halfway through the sahara desert.

The call came overhead for a doctor or person with medical expertise on the plane. It told us to press the call button, but there were three attendants talking to a man in the galley ahead of me on the right, it was clear where the sick passenger was.

I was literally months out of medical school, but this bizarre sounding hypothetical came up in conversation a few years ago, and ever since then I knew there wasn't any doubt on the right thing to do next. I unbuckled my belt, rubbed my eyes and stood up.

Meanwhile, literally four other older passengers were confidently striding down the aisles from different sides of the plane toward the galley. We were on a flight from London to Nairobi, making conversation before boarding I found out a sizable portion of the weekday flight was involved in health and development aid headed to different countries in East Africa, or relatively wealthy professionals going on safari. Suffice to say, there were a few doctors in the house.

I stopped a stewardess a few seconds later to ask if she thought they needed an extra hand from a pediatrician in training to give medications, start an IV or provide CPR. She said they were probably fine. I went back to sleep.

first-aid-908591-1-300x200.jpgImage by

9. Nurses Know How To Turn It On

My mom is a nurse (best one around, but I may be biased) and I've seen her in several emergency situations. It seems like she's always around when something like this happens. I think the worst one I've watched was on vacation. We were at a beach in NC and out of nowhere we just hear screaming for help. Apparently an older gentleman had a heart attack in the water, fell, and was getting pummeled by waves while unconscious. Mom pulled him out and started CPR until paramedics got there. Nothing too crazy but it was still kind of cool to watch my mom go from...well, mom to nurse.

She also stabilized my arm when I had a compound open fracture, helped a choking man at a Chinese restaurant, stopped for wrecks, helped people that have fainted, etc. Love that woman.

nurse-2019420-300x200.jpgImage by

8. How To Save A Life

I am a young doctor, recently graduated. I fly frequently and last week I faced a very scary situation that I would like to share here. My actions helped save a life, I think.

The plane had started moving on the runaway and we were just about to take off, when a kid started screaming 3 rows behind me. I assumed he was cranky about flying until suddenly I noticed the flight crew rushing past. A stewardess grabbed the child and started shouting, "Is there a doctor on this flight?" I stood up reflexively without even thinking (part of me was screaming this was a very bad idea) and she immediately dumped the kid in my lap.

He was about 1 year old. I don't have much experience with such an young age. He was actively seizing. Grand mal. Frothing secretions from his mouth. Chest not rising. My mind went perfectly blank for a couple of seconds. This was bad, very bad. In the background I could hear the mother screaming her head off about her baby dying.

Training kicked in fast. A crowd was rapidly building up, someone slapping him, someone else trying to open his mouth. I shouted at everyone to back off and told the air hostess to bring the medical kit and oxygen ASAP. We created a empty space for him and I put him in recovery position, removing any big objects in the vicinity.

Now the problem arose. The air crew had no medical training and did not know the contents of their kit. There was no medicine to stop his fits, no anti-epileptics, no benzos or any sedative. Nothing to establish IV access with or anything I could give nasally or rectally. I had no means to stop his seizure.

I briefly asked the mother about any recent history of fever, any prior history of fits, any medical problem. Everything was normal so far. This was his first fit, apparently. He had eaten two hours prior.

By this time they had brought an oxygen cylinder and a mask which was useless as he wasn't breathing anyways. I had to take control of his airway as his fits were continuous and I was worried about hypoxia, aspiration, or a cardiac arrest. There was nothing to control his airway either. There was a neonatal ETT but no pediatric size laryngoscopes. A small miracle happened and someone brought a AMBU and mask, all adult sizes. They actually had nothing pediatric with them.

I stuffed gauze around the mask and started ventilating with AMBU. I was trembling head to toe. He thankfully had a good pulse so far. I asked for a big roll of gauze and in between breaths, tried to mope up as much of his secretions as I could. They found a stethoscope in the meanwhile.

He stopped seizing after 5 minutes. He still wasn't breathing. Not responding to pain either. I continued ventilation, trying to avoid hyperventilation, checking pulse intermittently. On auscultation I could tell he had aspirated a bit. I kept on mopping excess secretions. His cyanosis disappeared. After 10-15 minutes he started breathing. Chest was rising again. I put a mask on him, covered him with a blanket and kept on rubbing his back to stimulate him. He still hadn't opened his eyes and wasn't responding to painful stimuli either.

In the meanwhile, another issue had arisen. This was a flight en route to the USA. The cabin crew wanted to take off. The pilot came to speak with me, emphasizing how important it was to start on time as delay would cause a massive financial loss. I told him not to continue, in my professional opinion. I couldn't release an unconscious kid to them as I was scared of another fit and cardiac arrest. The family involved agreed to let me decide the plan of action.

30 minutes after this started, he opened his eyes and started crying. I can't tell you how relieved I was to hear that cry. The on ground pediatrician came after 45 minutes. They attached monitors and his saturation was 96%. The pediatricrian agreed that my decision to stop the flight was the correct one. They took him in an ambulance to a nearby hospital. I was afraid they would come after me for stopping the flight and I was very relieved when he agreed with my decision. The family couldn't thank me enough.

I struggle with imposter syndrome a lot. I make mistakes often and I don't know everything. But when I left that flight as we landed eventually, I knew I had helped save that kid so apparently I am not entirely useless.


7. A Tisket, A Tasket...

Father is a physician and mother is a nurse. They tend to not raise their hand when "do we have a doctor on board?" shout comes over on a plane unless no one else does (probably because they have had a glass or two).

On one flight after the third frantic call for a medical professional they head up to see what's wrong. As they arrive where all the commotion is there is a mid-50's man lying in the middle of the aisle not responsive. Mom basically has to straddle the guy to check vital signs and start IV, they determine he is having a heart attack and then his pulse stops. They defibrillate (chest shock thingy) a couple times and bring him back to life and stay with him the rest of the flight to keep him alive. He is still alive today and my parents receive the largest gift basket you've ever seen every year for Christmas.

Also, they were very impressed with the amount and quality of medical supplies on a commercial domestic flight.

vegetables-2114787-300x225.jpgImage by

6. Trust Me: I'm A "Doctor"

I'm a pharmacist who has checked for a pulse once because NO ONE else present had any medical experience, but the best story comes from my SO's uncle who is a neurosurgeon.

He was riding in the car with his wife when the car in front of him is struck by an oncoming car from the other lane. The passenger was thrown from the car, so the neurosurgeon gets out to see if he can help.

Before he can do anything, this woman runs up from behind him and goes, "Everyone step back, I'm a doctor!!!" He tries to help, explaining he is a neurosurgeon, and she snaps at him to stand back with everyone else. He figures that this woman must be a specialist in emergency medicine, so he steps back. He then realizes this woman has zero clue what she's doing, giving CPR incorrectly and not letting anyone help.

When the EMTs arrive, it is revealed that she is a dentist, and the man died because no one was able to help him correctly. Her pride in being a "doctor" prevented a neurosurgeon from possibly saving a guy with a brain injury.

It makes me mad every time I think about it.

brain-2062057-1-300x228.jpgImage by

5. Attitude And Altitude

I'm an army medic and I was flying back to Germany after doing a mission elsewhere. Being on a commercial flight, I was wearing civilian clothes. I got seated in the back of the plane next to some Russians who just before take-off had bottles  confiscated cause they were chugging them. Shortly after take-off, the Russian woman stood up and walked towards the lavatory and just collapsed.

I jumped out of my seat and so did her boyfriend -- male friend? I'm not sure. I did basic stuff made sure she was breathing and took a pulse and her male friend sees me doing this and starts checking her radial pulse. Or so I thought until I noticed he was checking on the wrong side. The flight attendant started to talking to him in Russian and she informed me that he said he was a doctor and that I should return to my seat.

So I do and lo and behold five minutes later she's barely conscious and he's attempting to stand her up and she falls unconscious again, hitting her head on the way down. The Russian friend starts freaking out and confesses to the flight attendant that he wasn't actually a doctor. So she comes and gets me. I tell her to tell him not to lie next time and she makes him go back to his seat.

Long story short she was hammered out of her head for the first time on a flight and the altitude combined with drinking made her pass out.

indoor-2594469-300x200.jpgImage by


4. Too Little, Too Late

I was on a boat with my parents in the Bahamas. I heard a super garbled message come through the radio, and all I heard at first was "drowned." I asked my dad if he heard that and he hadn't. A few seconds later it came through again, clearer this time. A boat was communicating with Emergency Services on land that they had a scuba diver who had drowned. At this point my dad heard it, and grabbed the radio and volunteered my help. "We have an EMT on board," he said. I looked at him as if to say, "seriously, dude?"

Another boat had been listening in and they offered to come rendezvous with us in their fast little boat and come pick me up. So I tried to mentally prepare myself for the situation I had been volunteered for, and once they arrived I hopped aboard.

We sped out as fast as we could to try to meet up with the trawler that was coming in. As we were approaching, I saw somebody on board giving CPR to a body that I couldn't see. One of the people on the board the fast boat called out for them to take off the woman's wetsuit. At this point, I saw a man pick her up and she slumped over like a doll. It was clear that she was definitely dead. But it was too late to turn back now so I transferred myself over to their boat and jumped right in.

She had been dead probably for 30 minutes or so. You could see all the veins in her face, her eyes were completely glassed over, and though her face was blue, her skin was warm from the wetsuit in the sun. Thankfully the people on the fast boat had an AED and rescue mask. I applied the pads even though I knew the AED would say no shock advised. Once it did, I started CPR.

I performed CPR on her while talking to her boyfriend trying to figure out what had happened. Even though I knew it was futile, I kept doing compressions. He told me that they went diving and that they went down and everything was fine, but five minutes later he turned around and she was unconscious with the regulator out of her mouth. I wanted to smack him across the face when he said that it had been 5 minutes before he checked on her. But I kept my composure and tried not to be too angry with him. I performed CPR on her for another 30 minutes as we drove into shore. Once there, we rendezvoused with an ambulance who took her away. There was no chance of her survival.

I wish someone had told me during my EMT training that when you do a head tilt chin lift a victim's eyes will pop open and scare the crap out of you. I hadn't been drinking during the trip, but when I got back I had to crack open a beverage.

air-bubbles-230014-300x225.jpgImage by

3. Q & Anxiety

I am not the doctor; my wife is. We weren't married then. This was in our first few months of dating.

I work in the entertainment industry, and we were at a pre-release screening of 127 Hours aka the James-Franco-saws-off-his-own-hand movie. I wasn't super excited about seeing it, but I was hosting a q&a with the director after the film, and looked forward to impressing my date with how cool I was, getting to do this onstage interview.

So the movie, it turns out, is pretty good. And the money scene where Franco gets to hacking at himself was pretty effectively harrowing. Maybe too much so. As the scene unfolds, there are gasps around the crowd. Suddenly across the aisle from us, someone yells "we need a doctor!" A guy has pretty much collapsed in his seat, can't seem to breathe.

My gal leaps into action like a total pro (even though she'd only graduated from med school maybe 6 months before), is by the guy's side, propping him up in the aisle, checking his vitals. Meanwhile, James Franco is 70% of the way through his wrist... more gasps and screams, and the nerve-slicing soundtrack/sound design is going full blast.

Suddenly, someone else comes down the aisle... could she look at another audience member who has collapsed on the other side of the theater? There was at least one more person who lost it, so for the final sequence of the movie, she is overseeing a one-person triage unit in the lobby of the screening room until the paramedics came. I wanted to run out and be with her and generally bask in her awesomeness, but didn't want to miss the last part of the movie in case the director started talking about it.

In the end, it was nothing serious... panic/anxiety attacks, mostly. But there is no question in my mind that there would have been enough panic to kill the screening if she hadn't been there.

As it turns out, the director was 20 minutes late to the q&a, so then it was my turn to save the day by getting onstage and entertaining the crowd extemporaneously for what felt like an eternity. Honestly, I was kind of lucky that all that craziness went down since I could spend a fair amount of time getting reactions from the crowd and doing a "well, that was pretty freaking crazy, right?" routine.

Plus, when the director finally did show up, I had a pretty killer opening question.

But it was an awesome night in retrospect. Me and my gal were both at our best in our completely different ways. We'll have been married four years as of tomorrow.


2. Read The Label

Finally, one I can answer! I am an physician, and though I have not been practicing for the past 3 years (teaching) I was actually in a situation very similar to this only a few months ago.

I was on a red eye for a fairly short connecting flight. All had gone smoothly during takeoff, but almost as soon as the plane reached its maximum altitude and leveled out, there was an ungodly screaming that started coming from a few rows back. I looked around to see a man in the aisle clutching his face, simply wailing. The attendants were with him in seconds, but they couldn't figure out what was wrong, so they asked if there were any doctors.

When nobody else offered, I told them that I was a physician, and took a look at him. He seemed externally fine, but he was still whimpering. Because of the convenient time he had become effected, I assumed that this was a side effect of some medicine he was taking. I went to his carry-on and sure enough, there was a medicine bottle of typhlo-actimol, which is used to treat lymphosytic-blood disorders. This shouldn't have caused the reaction that he was having, however, so I went to re-examine him.

I asked if he'd had anything to drink, and he indicated no, but as I looked closer, poking just barely out of his jacket, partially inside the lining, was a silver hip-flask. I opened it and sure enough, the aroma of Jack. Despite the warnings on his bottle, AND the warnings that the doctor was required to give him, the genius had mixed the two substances and was currently experiencing a fairly severe mydlio-facial shock due to the binasotic reaction of the active ingredient in the medication and the ethanol. This is a similar thing to what happens when a scuba diver descends too quickly without equalizing, what they call a "squeeze" but is significantly more painful.

The pressure differential in his facial air-cavities was far greater than is comfortable or normal, even considering the changing altitude of the plane. Unfortunately, there was not much that could be done except to wait for the plane to descend to a point where he could equalize, which would (and did) alleviate the pain.

pocket-2324189-300x163.jpgImage by

1. Maybe Her Nephew Is A Doctor Too...

I was recently on a puddle jumper from DC to Detroit, which left four and a half hours late due to storms. En route, a woman became ill. I had informed the flight attendant I was medical upon boarding (they appreciate knowing there's someone on board) so she came to ask me to help.

The woman, a hypertensive diabetic with asthma, was clammy, tachycardic (fast pulse), and with shallow breathing. She didn't have her glucose monitor but another passenger did, and her blood sugar was >500, so we gave her insulin. (I think it was the other passenger's, too.) The medical kit on that tiny plane was impressive - could have run a full code up there.

After insulin she was somewhat better but still far from well, and I was on the intercom phone with the pilot every 15 minutes discussing if we should continue to Detroit or land at [each airport we were passing]. She seemed ill but stable and we were really late. So I suggested we continue to Detroit.

When we landed, an amazing thing happened. All the passengers stayed in their seats until the EMTs could get the woman off the plane. By the time I got into the terminal, they were all gone (this was no more than 5 minutes -- it was a tiny plane). The next evening as I was flying out, I asked a gate agent if they had heard anything about her (the agent apparently recognized me).

The woman refused to go to the hospital, and went home with her nephew! I sure was glad we didn't bring the plane down in Toledo!

diabetes-528678-300x200.jpgImage by

0. Asleep at the wheel

The plane was about 40 mins from landing when the FA came over the radio and said: “If there’s a doctor on board please report to the cockpit.” I ran up there as quick as I could. When I arrived, I found both pilot and copilot unconscious. I examined them and found nothing wrong. They were just blacked out. I tried to revive them, but nothing worked. Finally I noticed a strange bag on the floor. When I realized what was inside, I knew we were in deep trouble.

The two of them had taken vitamin supplements that do not mix and the result was unconsciousness. Thankfully I was able to revive them just in time.