A Tragedy in the Skies: Could an Air Medical Escort Have Helped?
Recently, I read a sad story in the local Phoenix news: a woman traveling from Detroit to Phoenix became unresponsive while in flight. Though the plane made an emergency landing in Denver to get the woman medical assistance, she later passed away. What exactly happened isn't yet clear (not publicly, anyway), but the incident does draw attention to a possibility that most people don't want to think about – what happens if you have a medical emergency in flight?
First, it's important to understand that there are different types of in-flight emergencies. In some cases, there's an accident or unexpected event on board. For example, a passenger chokes on a piece of food and dies. This is the kind of tragic event that can't be predicted. But there are also cases where the passenger is sick already but must travel (often for medical reasons). The airline should be aware of these passengers and their medical issues, and hopefully the passengers travel with an air medical escort to help see to their needs. Finally, there are people who are sick but have decided to fly anyway on their own, often against the advice of their doctor – or without checking with a doctor at all. These people may underestimate the risks of air travel or believe that they're healthy enough to fly when they really aren't.
The final category of passengers is most troubling, because if these people experience a medical emergency while in flight, there's a chance it could have been avoided with proper precautions. In some cases, it may be that the patient should have refrained from traveling. In cases where traveling couldn't be avoided, the person might have benefited from either traveling via an advanced air ambulance or flying with a medical escort who was familiar with their condition and who could assist them while in transit.
For people who are sick or injured and choose to fly commercially without an air medical escort, it’s important to understand what might happen on the plane if the person has a medical emergency. The airline crew will ask if there is anyone on the plane with medical experience (the flight attendants are not medically trained). Most airlines are contracted with a company called MedAire, which has phone operators who can give basic care instructions to the flight crew and/or the medical professional who has volunteered to help (not all professionals will volunteer, for fear of medical liability).
With the help of MedAire, the flight crew and/or volunteer will identify the patient’s needs and obtain the first aid items on the aircraft (which are small and limited) that could be helpful. Then the pilots, in consultation with the flight crew and/or volunteer and MedAire will decide whether to return to the departure airport (if they’ve just left) or continue on to the final destination , or divert the plane to a closer airport. It’s critically important to understand that the decision here is at the sole discretion of the pilots. Whatever decision the pilots make, the flight crew and MedAire will work together to get the appropriate medical resources to meet the plane once it lands and take over the care of the patient.
In other words, without a hired professional air medical escort, the patient has no one on the plane to rely on if an illness or injury becomes a medical emergency. On a commercial airline without help, medical resources are literally cobbled together.
Hiring an air medical escort, in contrast, ensures that the patient has both the medical professional and the equipment necessary to deal with any issues that may arise during the flight. It’s still up to the pilots to determine whether to divert the plane or not, but at least the on-board resources are prepared to take care of the patient (and with an air ambulance service like MedFlight911, we wouldn’t recommend traveling commercially with an air medical escort if the patient is not likely to make the flight safely; then we would recommend an air ambulance).
At MedFlight911, our experienced medical escorts help patients navigate airport procedures and deal with complicated airline regulations for passengers with medical needs, but they are also able to provide care for the patient while in flight, potentially averting a tragedy if the patient does experience a medical emergency. If you or a family member is sick and needs to travel, an air medical escort can help provide comfort and peace of mind for you and your loved ones.
To find out more about MedFlight911's air medical escort services give us a call at 888-359-1911 or get a no-obligation long distance medical transport quote here.