A Shared Responsibility

By William To, OD February 14, 2017

In our profession, we're provided many opportunities to help patients. But sometimes, it even happens on our days off, and in a completely unexpected way. I was able to experience such an event on January 27, and it was inspiring to see how health care professionals stand up together in a moment’s notice.

I like to sleep on planes. I know I'm fortunate in that sense. A lot of people wish they could sleep on planes but just aren't able to. There've been many occasions where I have fallen asleep before we even take off and wake up to the jolt of the wheels hitting the ground when it landed. That was my ideal flight scenario.

Exhausted from over a week of back-to-back-to-back traveling around the country, and finally on my flight home to Los Angeles from Atlanta, I was looking forward to one of those ideal scenarios. As soon as I got to my window seat, I settled in, and in a few minutes found a nice comfortable position against the wall and closed my eyes, my consciousness slowly ... slowly ... slipping away.

My eyes suddenly jolted open. We were in the middle of the flight, and people were screaming and shouting behind me. I turned to look but couldn't see well past multiple flight attendants and passengers standing around just a few rows behind me. It took me a few seconds but I finally caught a glimpse of what was going on just as another flight attendant made that dreaded announcement, "We have a medical emergency. Are there any medical professionals on the plane?"

A lot of thoughts went through my mind in that next second. Do I stand up? Do I say something? What if I'm the only one who does? I'm just an eye doctor, and I just graduated less than a year ago. Is there even anything I'd be able to do? Should I at least try? What if I don't know what I'm doing and end up causing more harm?

And then that second passed, and I knew what I had to do. I stood up just as two other passengers did. We walked over to the flight attendants hovering over an elderly man unconscious on the floor. After informing the flight attendants who we were, the three of us— an OD, an MD, and an EMT—quickly asked questions to assess the situation. We worked together to stabilize the patient, and he slowly began to regain consciousness. His vitals were low, but after a few minutes with an oxygen mask, he was disoriented but able to talk. With the medical history he was able to provide and the limited information we were able to obtain, we all agreed that he likely had a vasovagal syncope, luckily nothing too serious.

His vitals slowly returned to normal levels. The MD switched seats to sit next to him for the remainder of the flight to be safe. When we arrived, they had a wheelchair waiting to take him to the airport infirmary.

The funny thing is, with all the rescheduled flights and cancelled flights and missed flights this week, I wasn't even supposed to be on this flight to begin with. Now, I won't pretend that this was a situation that absolutely needed me there, and I'm 100 percent certain that the patient would have been taken care of exactly the same even if I wasn't on this flight. But everything worked out as well as it could have, relatively speaking. I'm glad to have been there to help out even if I was just an eye doctor.

It was inspiring to see my healthcare counterparts spring to action, with us working as a team to accomplish what needed to be done for someone else. It reminded me that I’ve worked hard to be in a position to help others, and there are others out there doing something similar in various walks of life. As I see it, it’s our responsibility to do the right thing, and now I have an experience I’ll never forget to validate that.

And for me personally, the biggest thing that I take with me after this whole experience is that when it counted, I stood up.

Share your story about a time you helped a patient outside of the exam room.


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