In 2010 there were 19,000 medical cases on board airlines, 442 were serious enough to divert the plane and 94 people died on board a plane.

I travel a lot- as a physician I am frequently hear the call “is there a doctor on board. ” But on the last flight, US Airways,  the attendant didn’t call me and as a result a passenger had a nose bleed that was aggravated so it wouldn’t stop, with blood all over the seat. We were on the runway when it happened, the plane went back to the terminal, he was taken to an ER, and the seat was decontaminated by a crew. This could have been prevented – in this case, it could have been prevented if the flight attendant would have called me earlier – but they chose not too, and as a result the passenger had an unnecessary trip to the ER, the flight was delayed, and there was a lot of blood that didn’t need to be there. 

It happened again this weekend- called on to help a patient who appeared as if she was going to expire on a plane. US Airways had lots of equipment that helped us get her safely into an ambulance, but this was a woman who had been ignoring her health for too long, and decided to take a flight.

As a frequent flier I have been called on a number of times to assist a passenger, or crew members, who became ill on board a plane. Only one time did the flight have to be delayed because of a passenger who became ill. Being on an airplane with limited equipment, and medications, puts passengers at risk.

Here are a few recommendations for your safe travel: if you are ill, don’t travel. The altitude and confined space will only make things worse. In addition, if you have a virus, you will easily pass it on, and that isn’t a great thing to do for your fellow passengers. There is nothing worse than being ill on an airplane at 35,000 feet.

Do keep a list of your regular medications, and bring some of those medications with you on the flight- even if they are medicines you only need periodically.

water dehydration travel
Do drink a lot of water on the plane. Most of the patients I take care of are mildly dehydrated, and the cabin pressurization, dry air of the plane, will make symptoms worse. Get up and walk a lot on the plane, especially with longer plane trips. If you drink enough water you will walk a lot.

Last year I was asked to attend to six different patients on board an airplane. To this day I have no idea how any of the people/passengers did – I gave all of them my business card. The airline crew is always happy, often taking my name, even my frequent flier number, but it has been six years since an airline sent me a note of thanks for taking care of their passengers (in 2010 five on US Airlines, one on Alaska Airlines). One flight attendant was so happy after I assisted a man who apparently had a heart attack that she gave me two bottles of wine—I returned them to her, but appreciated the gesture.


alaska airlines

Thank you Alaska Airlines for taking care of my dad

My father became ill on board an airplane, there was a very nice Physicians Assistant who called me to talk to me about it after. I made certain to get his name and send him a thank you card with a gift certificate, and follow up with him about how my father is doing well, and appreciated the care he received.

If you do become ill, and are tended to by a physician, even if it is for dehydration – take their card and send them a follow up note and a thank you. We don’t expect or want payment for our services, but we always like knowing how things turn out and how people are doing.  A simple thank you is enough.