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Health heroes of the skies

If you’ve ever been on a plane, feeling a little dizzy or under theweather, the thought might cross your mind: How would the airline dealwith a medical emergency in the air?

If you’ve ever been on a plane, feeling a little dizzy or under the weather, the thought might cross your mind: How would the airline deal with a medical emergency in the air?

In fact, it’s a relatively common occurrence, and each airline has its own set of protocols for helping someone in distress.

WestJet has seen its number of incidents increase. There were 888 health-related issues in the air last year, including nine instances when planes were diverted for medical reasons, said Mark Frezell, director of in-flight for the airline.

“One, it’s due to the growth in our flights, and second, I believe it’s attributed to our aging population,” he said from Calgary.

Last month, a paper published in The Lancet looked at medical issues associated with commercial flights, and said that almost two billion people travel aboard commercial airlines every year.

Resources to deal with medical situations include basic and advanced medical kits, automated external defibrillators and support from medical staff on the ground, said co-author Dr. Mark Gendreau of Lahey Clinic Medical Center in Burlington, Mass.

“To their credit, the airlines have really stepped up and enhanced their ability to deal with in-flight medical emergencies, over, I would say, the last eight years,” he said in an interview.

Typically, flight attendants or the captain will ask if there’s a doctor on board to assist, and will check credentials before accepting the help. A satellite phone or radio will be used to contact physicians on the ground.

WestJet and many other airlines around the world have contracts with MedAire, an Arizona-based company that took its first call at the MedLink Global Response Center in 1987.

It draws upon the expertise of physicians in the emergency department of Banner Good Samaritan Medical Center in Phoenix, and has access to more than 100 different medical specialties.

MedLink receives about 17,000 calls a year from airplanes, said Heidi Giles MacFarlane, vice-president of strategic development.

At Air Canada, spokesman Peter Fitzpatrick says the airline’s top priority is the safety of all customers and crew.

“This is why it is very important that customers with medical conditions such as recent major surgery, or certain known illnesses or injuries, be approved for travel before the departure (48 hours),” he said in an email.

MacFarlane said the typical incidents on board are usually not that devastating. “The most common injury — there are two, actually, that compete for top place. And one is appendage injuries from meal carts and beverage carts, so people get their knees hit frequently or their toes run over from the carts. And then objects falling from overhead storage bins.”

On the illness side, fainting is the most common event, she said.

 
 
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