Improved in-flight medical kits save 2 lives in one day Airline's planes have defibrillators, heart drugs

November 27, 1998|By CHICAGO TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON -- An American Airlines nonstop flight from Boston to Los Angeles was an hour east of Denver recently when Michael Tighe's heart began fibrillating wildly, no longer able to pump blood to his dying brain.

"I really don't remember any of it. I was watching the movie and I passed out," Tighe, 62, said from his bed in a Denver hospital after undergoing the airline's first successful in-flight defibrillation.

As Tighe was being restored to life, on another American flight over central Nevada a physician was using cardiac drugs from the airline's newly enhanced emergency medical kit to revive the dwindling heartbeat of a 73-year-old California man who had collapsed while reading a newspaper.

The two incidents, a few minutes and 500 miles apart, illustrate American's pioneering efforts to treat critically ill passengers in flight and refute the airline industry's traditional maxim that it is always better to land the plane than minister to sick passengers in the air.

Tighe and his wife, Dolores, a registered nurse, were well-aware of what defibrillators can do. One of Tighe's responsibilities, as communications director for the Boston Public Health Commission, is publicizing the city's efforts to place automatic portable defibrillators like the one that saved his life in office buildings and hotels and on fire engines.

'It was just luck'

When they made their reservations for a trip to Los Angeles, where Dolores Tighe planned to attend a nursing conference and the couple hoped to visit one of their four daughters, the Tighes did not know that American is the only U.S. airline that carries defibrillators.

dTC "It was just luck," said Dolores Tighe. "A lot of luck."

Since American began carrying the devices 18 months ago, they have been used to shock six passengers, of whom three, including Tighe, have survived. Tighe is the first passenger whose life has been saved in flight.

"I don't like being that historic first," Tighe said with a chuckle. "But I'm grateful."

"It was a miracle," his wife said. "He was dead. He was dead. The fact that he's alive is a miracle."

It was a greater miracle than she knew. Although American has defibrillators on more than 400 of its wide-body transcontinental planes, they are still being installed on its remaining 200 narrow-body domestic jets.

American spokesman John Hotard said the Tighes' plane was equipped with its defibrillator two days before their flight.

"The luck of the gods was with that man," said Dr. David McKenas, American's medical director, who has spearheaded the airline's upgrading of its medical services.

If not for that luck, Michael Tighe probably would have died in the aisle of a Boeing 757 over the eastern slope of the Rockies.

"I had my feet on his lap," recalled Dolores Tighe. "He was watching the TV, and all of a sudden his arm swung out into the aisle, followed by his head. I knew something was wrong. I yelled at him, and he didn't respond. I started hitting his face and calling his name, and he wasn't answering me."

A scream for help

"I started screaming for help," she said. " The flight attendants came, and they asked for help to get him down on the floor. Everybody was helping, passengers as well as flight attendants. It was obvious that he had stopped breathing, and I couldn't get a pulse, so I started CPR."

When flight attendants arrived with the plane's defibrillator, the size of a laptop computer, Dolores Tighe didn't recognize it at first.

"All of a sudden this box appears," she said. "I had no idea what it was. They put the leads on him and shocked him. Each time he came back, and the last time he actually stayed. And then he began to respond and wake up. He kept trying to sit up. He had no idea who he was or where he was."

As that plane was descending for an emergency landing, Dr. John Roche, a surgical resident from the University of California at Davis who was en route from Sacramento, Calif., to Dallas aboard another American flight, was answering a call for a physician from flight attendants who had discovered an unconscious passenger in the cabin.

"He had no pulse and no blood pressure," said Roche, who

connected the passenger to that plane's defibrillator, which also contains a small cardiac monitor. The monitor showed not a ventricular fibrillation, as was the case with Michael Tighe, but a dangerously slow heart rhythm of 40 beats a minute.

"I put in an IV," Roche said, "and I gave him 1 milligram of atropine. At that point I got his heart rate up to about 60, and he developed a blood pressure and regained consciousness."

Pub Date: 11/27/98

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