Dr. Srinivas Vuthoori, LVMC Co-Chair of Internal Medicine and CEO of V2Health, wasn’t expecting a lot of excitement on his American Airlines flight from Miami to Las Vegas this week. But luckily, Dr. Vuthoori was in the proverbial “right place at the right time,” when a fellow passenger went into medical distress.
The frequent traveler was on the way visit friends when the flight crew called for a medical professional to help with a sick passenger.
“This is probably the sixth time this has happened to me,” Dr. Vuthoori said of being airborne and asked to render medical care. One time when he responded, he was near to starting CPR on a male passenger, who was without a pulse.
“The challenge is, on a flight, there’s no way to really tell what’s wrong,” he said. “We admit these types of patients every day for overnight observation. On a previous experience, I told them to divert the flight and they didn’t listen to me. It was another 2 ½ hours on the flight. I was nervous, thinking if he codes on me, I have nothing. That was a bad experience for me.”
During this week’s emergency, Dr. Vuthoori said he thought it would be a non-emergent request. The flight attendant ran to him and said the woman was suffering an asthma attack and was not breathing.
“I asked for a stethoscope and medical kit,” he recalled. “Here’s the challenge – it’s a terrible stethoscope on the plane. I usually travel with mine and this time I didn’t.”
In examining the woman, who appeared to be in her 60s, Dr. Vuthoori determined she was wheezing and had no air entry.
“If she showed up in the ER, we’d be giving steroids and a nebulizer treatment to turn her around,” he said. “In the worst case, we’d be intubating.”
In listening to the passenger’s lungs, he said he realized she was almost in impending respiratory failure.
“She was going to go on me,” he says. “I had barely any options and very little medication.”
He was soon joined by a nurse who was traveling on the flight – she’d gotten married the day before and was heading off on her honeymoon trip.
Without any medications useful for the ill woman’s condition, Dr. Vuthoori said he started getting an airway and defibrillator ready to use.
“I told them, ‘Land right now,’” he said. “They said, ‘Oh no, we’re waiting on air traffic control.’ I said, ‘Land the plane. She’s going to die.’”
Very soon, the pilot received approval to turn the plane around and head back to the nearest airport in Tampa.
“It took about 38 minutes,” Dr. Vuthoori said. “It was the longest 38 minutes of my life. I was losing her only toward the end. I was promising I’d get her through this. I was helpless. Most of the time I was doing TLC rather than being able to treat her.”
Once the plane landed, the patient was aided by paramedics and stabilized, it appeared. They confirmed to the crew that the woman would likely not have done well if the plane had not turned around.
In retrospect, the physician offers tremendous thanks and praise to the airline crew and the nurse who helped, noting it was a team effort. The woman lived, he said, “not because I did anything great, but because I was able to convince them to land the plane.”
“I realize what they (the airline) are dealing with millions of dollars, risk and reward, but this is a life.”