There are some phrases you don’t want to hear over a plane’s intercom while suspended thousands of feet in the air. On Dec. 30, Amy Sorensen heard two of them: Are there any medical professionals on board? Then, a little later: Does anyone have flight experience?
Sorensen, 24, was watching “We are the Millers” when the first announcement sounded. She was returning from a family Christmas, flying United Airlines from Des Moines, Iowa, to Denver with 154 other passengers. Call lights started flashing almost immediately. She figured, there must be several doctors on board with more experience than me. She’d earned her Bachelor of Nursing degree from the University of Wyoming just a couple of weeks earlier and, while she had worked at Wyoming Medical Center since September 2012, she’d only worked the last six months in the Emergency Department.
But none of the call lights came from doctors. Responding flight attendants told worried passengers that they couldn’t give any more information and then moved to the next call light just to say the same thing. Only one other medical professional – ICU nurse Linda Alweis of California – had responded. When a second call came over the intercom, Sorensen flipped her switch.
We need you up front right now, the flight attendant told her. It’s the captain.
“I think I was just still shocked,” Sorensen said. “I didn’t know what to expect. But, by the look on the flight attendant’s face, I knew it was something serious. She looked frantic. She looked scared.”
Sweat had soaked through the pilot’s jacket by the time Sorensen got to the cockpit. His face was white and his lips were blue. He was covered in vomit. The copilot blocked his hands as he grabbed at the controls, obviously disoriented. He knew his name and nothing else. Heart attack, Sorensen thought, or something just as serious.
Are we diverting? Sorensen asked. We need to land as soon as possible.
Yes, the copilot answered. They were turning around to Omaha, Neb., the closest city with a medical center.
Sorensen, Alweis and another passenger unbuckled the captain and pulled him out of his chair. They lay him in the attendants’ galley, the small compartment between the cockpit and first class where attendants prep their carts. It had slightly more floor room than the aisle. Sorensen knelt next to his head, taking charge of interventions. Alweis took charge of medications and supplies.
Sorensen told Alweis to cut off his clothes and asked an attendant to gather all the medical supplies, including the Automated External Defibrillator – AED. The pilot had a heart rate of 200 beats per minute, suffering ventricular tachycardia with a pulse. In other words, his ventricles were beating way too fast to adequately pump blood through the body. He needed a short burst of electricity to shock the heart into a more stable rhythm, but the plane’s AED had just two buttons: on/off and a full-force defibrillate shock.
Sorensen gave him a nitroglycerin tablet, but without an equipped emergency room or a team of doctors and nurses, she went back to the ABCs – Airway, Breathing, Circulation.
“You are totally out of your element. You don’t know what you have to work with. I was just talking loudly to the nurse saying, man if I had this or if I had that, and they’d go find it. I said, ‘You know we need to get vitals on him’ and out of nowhere a blood pressure cuff comes flying at me,” Sorensen said. “At one point, I looked up and saw all these heads just leaning in the aisle looking down at us.”
The pilot’s blood pressure was 70-over-40, about half of what it should have been. His condition deteriorated as the flight continued. They put him on oxygen. Sorensen set up an IV and taught an attendant how to push the fluids through more quickly. When his breathing slowed and he started to lose consciousness, Sorensen administered a chest rub – a trick to arouse a patient with pain. She and Alweis worked on him for 25 to 30 minutes before Sorensen got scared.
I think we’re going to have to start CPR, she told Alweis. She knew that a patient’s chance for recovery decreased significantly once it got to that point.
Just about then, a flight attendant told them to brace for a rough landing. Sorenson grabbed onto the oxygen tank and her patient, trying to keep both from jostling around in the galley. The attendant asked if they could taxi to the gate.
There isn’t time, Sorensen answered.
The plane came to a stop and the doors flung open. Firefighters and medics removed the pilot while the plane was still on the runway.
Alweis and Sorensen stayed in the galley to help clean up and to collect their own composure. “It looked like a yard sale with medications and supplies strewn everywhere, just like you see in an ER when you get a critical patient. They were all traumatized,” Sorensen said. Passengers cheered as she walked back to her seat, but Sorensen could only think about what else she might have done.
Passengers stayed overnight in Omaha. Sorensen went for a glass of wine in the hotel bar and several passengers offered to buy her a drink. They all flew to Denver together the next day. The pilot had made it to the Cath Lab in time and was in stable condition, an attendant told her. Sorensen felt good.
“I’ve been an ER nurse for six months. I don’t know how I would have reacted if that had happened before my time in critical care,” she said. “My experience here (at WMC) and what I’ve learned from my coworkers has definitely taught me stuff to take out in the real world.”
Corrine Arross, Emergency Department senior nurse manager, agreed: “I do have the say that the girl is cool under fire. I’ve seen her in action and she’s got a good head on her shoulders.”
United assigned Sorensen a seat at the back of the plane for the flight into Denver where she faced a seven-hour layover. She was content to sit back, relax and maybe finish an entire movie that go around. One passenger wouldn’t hear of it. He offered Sorensen his seat in first class and didn’t let her refuse it.
As for that second phrase nobody wants to hear on an airplane — Does anyone have flight experience? — Sorensen isn’t exactly sure when she heard it in all the commotion. Sometime after she and her help pulled the captain from his pilot’s seat. Sorensen remembers hearing the copilot say that while she’d done it before, landing was more the captain’s duty. It wasn’t part of her routine and, if at all possible, she’d like someone in the cockpit with her.
“Fortunately, we had a retired Air Force pilot on board,” Sorensen said.