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If You Have a Medical Emergency on a Plane, Chances Are a Fellow Passenger Will Treat You

Only 0.3 percent of people who have a medical emergency on a plane die mid-flight or shortly after landing

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If you’re the unlucky person on one in 604 flights who has a medical emergency, do not fear. According to new research, a fellow passenger will likely come to the rescue. Doctors, nurses and other medical professionals who happen to be aboard assist in around 75 percent of mid-flight emergencies, the study authors found.

The study authors combed through records of in-flight medical calls from five domestic and international airlines between 2008 to 2010. On average, 49 in-flight emergencies occur on domestic flights each day, while 157 occur on international flights. The most common problems the flight attendants reported were fainting, respiratory problems, vomiting and heart troubles. Just 11 out of 11,920 cases involved pregnant women going into labor.

In about half the cases, physicians on board helped out. Most people received in-flight treatment, with around a quarter heading straight to the hospital upon landing. Around seven percent of the flights made emergency landings for the ailing passenger. Only 0.3 percent died on the plane or shortly after landing.

USA Today elaborates:

While flights are often equipped with medical supplies — such as pain relievers and intravenous fluids — only a trained medical professional can administer them, Isakov says.

Given how often doctors fly — for medical conferences or just vacations — the odds seem fairly good that one will be on board when an emergency strikes, says Abella, who works at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.

Still, in both cases in which Abella assisted fellow airline passengers, he says, “I felt very much like I was flying by the seat of my pants.”

The study authors suggest that doctors and medical professionals take time to learn what resources are available on a plane and also how to most effectively work in a cramped, unfamiliar and possibly turbulence-filled environment, just in case the day comes that they have to save a fellow passenger or deliver a baby on board a plane.

More from Smithsonian.com:

State of Emergency  
Three Ways Emergency Preparedness Is Like Wedding Planning 

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