Aircraft Medicine

I’ve purposefully not named routes, companies or people involved here. I’ve also tried to keep my level of detailed description to a minimum. This is to protect the dignity and confidentiality of all involved.

In Five Feet Apart, love cannot be expressed by human touch. In this heart-wrenching and unflinching portrayal, two Cystic Fibrosis patients fall in love. If they get too close, they could catch each others’ bacteria, and one or both of them will die.

As I clutch my glass of wine and wipe my teary face, I catch a commotion in the corner of my right eye. A few seats down, a passenger is unconscious.

Now, I’m pretty confident at nursing care in my hospital, with a whole team of experienced doctors and nurses around me. I’ve also been first-on-scene at two road traffic accidents, including once on the M1 motorway late at night.

This is different. I’m shaking like a leaf and I feel sick to my stomach. Not only am I currently the only medical professional for thousands of miles, but everyone is watching. Like, EVERYONE. And I can’t exactly clear the space and call for ambulance backup.

I never imagined that my Literature and Nursing backgrounds would collide in quite this way. I feel like an unwilling improv actor with some scientific knowledge.

Somehow I find myself assessing the patient almost automatically. ABCDE: Airway, Breathing, Circulation, Disability, Exposure: Airway’s OK, breathing looks solid, and circulation’s fine.

Disability in ABCDE assessment does not mean the permanent kind we’re culturally familiar with. Here it can be a temporary loss of usual function. When I find people in public environments, it’s generally a Disability from a reduced blood sugar.

By this point, the wonderful airline staff have attended and brought me the emergency equipment. I’ve asked them to put a call out for a doctor, who arrives and is utterly delightful. The doctor is reassuring me that I’m doing ok while I try to reassure the patient and relative!

My improv act continues as I try to make sense of the airline emergency kitbag. The contents are good and the actual materials are standard, but they’re packaged and labelled differently to in the UK NHS. I find myself reading labels and struggling to open packaging just like when I was a new student nurse.

After rubbing several rounds of glucose into the passenger’s gums we place him in the recovery position and monitor him. This is difficult on the narrow airline aisle floor. The doctor, airline crew and I keep recapping and planning next steps, with support from a physician on the ground via the aircraft radio. Sure enough, we have the passenger right as rain again after a while.

Travel is hard on the body: changing time zones, sleeping and eating patterns. You don’t need to be diabetic to experience an occasional low blood sugar. What happened to the passenger wad not their fault. I’m just saying remember to eat and sleep properly when you travel, even if you feel absolutely rough.

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