In January 2003 I was in the upper cabin of a 747 for an overnight return flight from Calgary to Heathrow. I greeted two casually dressed middle-aged women, who were the only other passengers in the cabin.
After three hours in the air we were far out over Baffin Bay. The captain announced that one of the passengers had had a heart attack, and we would have to return to Halifax, the nearest medical center. He asked any doctor or nurse on board to identify themselves to the crew.
The two women stood up. One went down to the main cabin. The other gave detailed instructions to the crew, who carried the patient up on a stretcher. Her face was blue and she was unconscious. To my untrained eye, it seemed she was already dead.
The women crouched over their patient and declined the offer of the plane’s medical supplies. Their hand baggage contained a remarkable array of medical devices, drugs and equipment.
It took two hours for the plane to get to Halifax, by which time they had retrieved the situation and the patient was conscious, moving and talking. A Canadian ambulance team arrived, but the women were stabilizing the patient and told them to wait. Ten minutes later they released the patient and the Canadian team took her from the plane.
Outside a blizzard was blowing, and takeoff was delayed. First we needed more fuel. Then it transpired that the 747 had frozen in, and we had to wait for a tractor unit. I joined the two women for a glass of wine.
They were both doctors at St Thomas’s, one of the world famous teaching hospitals in London. One was Professor of Cardiac Surgery, the other a consultant anaesthetist. They were in Calgary as guest speakers at an international conference on cardiac surgery. They always took their medical equipment as hand baggage, to avoid the risk of losing it in the hold.
The patient had indeed been clinically dead, but they expected she should now make a full recovery. There was no triumph or self-congratulation. One said, “It was just lucky we were on this flight.”
Who would have thought that the best place to have a heart attack was in a 747, thirty thousand feet over Baffin Bay?