What I Learned From My In-Flight Medical Emergency

Apr 24, 2018

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“Is there a doctor on-board?” is a phrase no one wants to hear over the intercom during the flight. Or, at least that’s what I always assumed. However, Sunday night I was the patient that needed a doctor. After hours of excruciating pain, I was relieved to hear the announcement go out and prayed that someone would answer the call.

Let’s take a step back and set the situation: This weekend, I went on a “review run” on Avianca business class from New York City to Medellin, Cartagena and  Bogota, Colombia, back to New York City. The whole trip was scheduled to take less than 48 hours, as I was squeezing it in between the Primera Air inaugural flight and the ILA Berlin Air Show starting Wednesday.

My JFK to Medellin flight started off terribly before getting better, and I spent a night in the city before flying three legs back on Sunday. I was set to review the Avianca Airbus A330 flight from Bogota-NYC, but I would end up with a different story instead.

The first sign of an issue was when I was waiting (and waiting, and waiting…) in line at the gate to board my flight from Bogota back to NYC. At that point, I began to feel a little queasy and particularly exhausted. I chalked this up to jet lag due to the late night flight, exacerbated by having been based in Europe for the last few months.

After boarding and waiting for pushback, I noticed that I was sweating. Presuming it to be because of a hot cabin, I checked the thermometer — which I always carry for reviews — to find it was just 75° in the cabin. That was a bad sign. Then, the abdominal pain started kicking in. I figured that I probably had eaten something that was making me sick. Or maybe was it my epic Colombian feast from the night before?

Once in the air, the pain got worse. I found some relief lying down, but soon there was no comfortable position. So, I finally said something to a flight attendant while she was serving dinner to the forward business class cabin. I asked if she or any of the crew had over-the-counter pain medicine. She explained that it was illegal in Colombia for the crew to carry meds with them — seemingly even ibuprofen and acetaminophen. She suggested I drink tonic water, as that’s what the crew does when feeling ill. I gave it a shot.

Neither the tonic water nor the chamomile tea that she later brought me seemed to provide any relief from the ever-increasing pain. Finding myself involuntarily moaning in pain and finding it harder to even move, I was freaking out that my appendix might be bursting.

I willed myself up to the galley — detouring to the lavatory to throw up from the pain — and asked if there was a doctor on board. The flight attendant said that she didn’t know, but she would make an announcement. With it being 1:40am and the cabin settling down for a short sleep, I felt mortified that this announcement would bother passengers.

But the flight attendant could tell that I was in distress, and made the call. Thankfully, three medical professionals responded, gathering around me in the middle business class galley. One doctor explained he specialized in internal medicine and had spent some years performing surgeries himself. Understandably, he took the lead.

After a thorough verbal and physical assessment, the doctor was able to rule out appendicitis or anything immediately life-threatening. That assured both me and the crew that a medical diversion wouldn’t be necessary and that I’d likely survive until NYC.

Hours after the pain had suddenly begun, it finally started to subside. I found I was able to find relief by bending over in the flight attendant chair they’d sat me in for the assessment. Eventually, I could stand and retreat to my seat for an hour of fitful sleep. I woke up for landing with only minor pain, but feeling incredibly sore — as if I’d been kicked in the gut.

Once in NYC, I was able to find a gastroenterologist who could take me that morning. He’s ruled out appendicitis and a gallbladder problem. His initial diagnosis is a peptic ulcer, but I have further tests coming up to determine a final diagnosis. With the prescribed medicine kicking in, I’m starting to feel a lot better.

Lessons Learned

Don’t be afraid to say something. Honestly, I was mortified to be in this situation. That’s why I downplayed my pain when I first brought up the situation to a flight attendant and thought shortly about withdrawing the request when I learned they’d have to make an announcement over the intercom. However, that request is what ended up ruling out a genuine medical emergency, putting me somewhat at ease. The flip side to saying something: If you declare your sickness before departure, you might be required by the crew to leave the flight.

Always carry over-the-counter medicine. I almost always carry individually-packaged pain pills when I travel. In my off-the-beaten path travels from Majuro to Mongolia, I’ve learned these pill packs are worth every bit of size and weight in my pack, as they’ll eventually be very helpful when needed. Of course, I was testing out a brand new small daypack on this trip, and those pills were left back in New York City. (Do keep in mind that some countries consider even innocuous medication to be a dangerous drug; plan accordingly.)

Know where to find medical help. When I landed in NYC, I had no idea what I could do to get a medical assessment. With my pain level subsiding, I didn’t want to go to an emergency room. And I figured that most urgent care facilities would just refer me to an emergency room when they heard my symptoms. I called my insurance provider, but they could only promise to email a list of all in-network providers (that email still hasn’t arrived over seven hours later).

After striking out cold-calling gastroenterologists in NYC, I stumbled across Zocdoc and was able to schedule an in-network gastroenterologist under half a mile from the TPG office for 9:30am. The doctor provided exactly the expertise that I needed. So, I’m instantly a fan of Zocdoc. If you’re traveling overseas, one great resource for finding medical providers can be the US Embassy website for the country that you’re visiting.

This story has been updated to indicate that some countries object to importing even over-the-counter medication.

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