Is there a Doctor on Board? Physician Services Group Cardiologist Saves Woman on Plane

Dr. Stanley Wang seized another opportunity to save a life – this time, on a plane. According to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, an estimated 44,000 in-flight medical emergencies occur worldwide each year. And the cardiologist from Austin Heart, an affiliate of HCA’s St. David’s Healthcare, happened to be on one of those flights – traveling from New York City to Barcelona, Spain – when a fellow passenger collapsed due to cardiac arrest mid-flight over the Atlantic Ocean.

Dr. Wang was drifting off to sleep when he heard several flight attendants shout, “Code red,” and noticed the plane drop in altitude. He quickly learned “code red” meant “passenger down.” Without hesitation, Dr. Wang informed the attendant he was a doctor and ran towards the front of the plane to help. There, he found a woman in her fifties who had collapsed in the walkway and was completely unresponsive without a pulse.

“I was on vacation, but who cares about any of that,” Dr. Wang said. “We care about our fellow humans and so the natural instinct was to run up there and do everything possible to help. On top of that, I think being a doctor and having the training I do, it’s a higher duty to do whatever I can to assist.”

The first responder was a flight attendant who started basic CPR and chest compressions. Dr. Wang assumed control of the resuscitation effort, following all Algorithms for Advanced Cardiac Life Support (ACLS) protocols, before attendants located an automated external defibrillator (AED). By that time, the patient had received effective CPR.

Dr. Wang and the other responders then elevated the woman’s legs to improve her low blood pressure and she regained consciousness.

During this time, the pilot had diverted the flight toward the Azores, a small island in the middle of the Atlantic, to land at Lajes Air Force Base for the passenger’s emergency medical care. However, when the pilot learned the woman was resuscitated, he and Dr. Wang used the satellite phone to reach the airline physician on call.

The airline physician agreed to allow the flight to continue the 3.5 hour flight to Barcelona after Dr. Wang volunteered to stay with the passenger and take vital signs every 15 minutes for the remainder of the trip.

The plane reached its original destination without further incident, and the passenger was reassessed by the medical team upon arrival in Spain.

Dr. Wang said she was able to continue the vacation with her family – the same cruise he was scheduled to take – and they were very grateful he was on the plane.

“One of her daughters gave me a big hug at the end and said, ‘Thanks for saving our mom’,” Dr. Wang said. “I have chills now just thinking about it.”

Dr. Stanley Wang is a cardiologist and sleep specialist at Austin Heart, a partner of HCA and its affiliate of St. David’s Healthcare. A member of HCA’s Physician Services Group, he is also co-medical director of Heart Hospital of Austin Sleep Disorders Center.