Chest Pain on a Plane: Mid-Air Heart Attack

Chest Pain on a Plane

At 35,000 feet over the Atlantic, the concept of "routine" doesn't exist for medical emergencies. My flight left Europe mid-afternoon en route home to the U.S. Halfway through the flight, I was watching the midflight film when the announcement came. Medical help was needed in row 21. An ICU nurse and I both responded to find a woman in her early 50s lying back in her seat looking rather ill. She was pale, sweaty and complaining of chest pain radiating down her left arm associated with shortness of breath.

The flight attendants had started to move. The woman had been given aspirin, and an oxygen mask was on her face. Passengers nearby were relocated; two large medical equipment bags were already in the aisle.

Emergency Heart Attack Diagnosis

First things first; the ABCs of resuscitation. She had a good airway and wasn't laboring to breathe. Unfortunately, C for circulation was not so good; her blood pressure was low at 80/50. A handheld EKG machine showed that this woman was in the midst of a heart attack. On the ground, EMS and 911 would be activated, a trip to the ER would be followed by an even quicker trip for a heart catheterization to find the blocked artery, open it with a balloon and restore the blood supply to heart muscle that was starving for oxygen. But high tech lab tests and X-rays don't exist in the air. The pilot agreed to divert, and the plane made its way to a location 30 minutes away.

Heart attack care involves a couple of things. First, nitroglycerin is used to dilate narrowed blood vessels and return some blood flow to the heart. Aspirin is used to make platelets less sticky so that blood can snake through narrowed arteries, and oxygen is provided so that each red blood cell that makes it through a narrowed vessel is packed with an oxygen molecule to deliver it to heart tissue. Heart and blood pressure monitors continually check the patient's status and vital signs. On an airplane, the monitor was me checking the blood pressure and the nurse continuously feeling the pulse at the wrist.

Space was tight, and the patient was laid flat across four seats. An IV was started so that fluid could be given to support her blood pressure. No IV poles; a flight attendant held the bag high above the woman. Nitroglycerin was sprayed under her tongue repeatedly, making certain her blood pressure didn't drop lower. An automatic defibrillator (AED) was attached to her chest just in case it was needed. Ventricular fibrillation, an abnormal heart rhythm that doesn't support a normal heart beat, is the most common cause of sudden death in the midst of a heart attack, and the AED would be able to treat it by delivering an electrical shock.

Stabilizing a Heart Patient in an Emergency

As the plane touched down, the woman began to relax as her pain resolved and her blood pressure began to normalize. Within minutes, paramedics boarded and took over her care. As they left for the hospital, I spoke with the emergency physician. The cath lab began to gear up for the patient to arrive. As I learned later, the woman underwent heart catheterization, including balloon angioplasty to open a blocked vessel and a stent placement to keep it open. She was resting comfortably in the CCU. From the onset of pain to getting a heart attack fixed took a little over 2 hours. Not bad considering the situation.

For all the bad press that pilots and flight attendants get, I'm reminded that in times of need they do their job very well. The flight attendant mantra is that they are there for passenger safety. The flight crew of the Northwest flight performed like the pros they were. And for all the technology that exists in medicine, I am reminded that high touch at the bedside still has its role.

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Medically reviewed by Avrom Simon, MD; Board Certified Preventative Medicine with Subspecialty in Occupational Medicine


"Initial evaluation and management of suspected acute coronary syndrome (myocardial infarction, unstable angina) in the emergency department"