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Mid-Air Medical Emergencies On Rise - Expert

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

No-one wants it to happen, but if your heart does stop, one of the best places you can be is on a plane.

So says American anaesthetist, aviation medical examiner and pilot Keith Ruskin, who will speak on the subject at the international anaesthetists' conference being held at the Wellington Convention Centre from October 11-14.

Professor Ruskin says the number of medical emergencies mid-air are on the rise and he attributes the increase to an upsurge in elderly travellers due to the aging population.

"But on the upside one of the best places to have your heart stop is on a plane. There is always going to be a witness - somebody's going to see you fall over, all airlines have defibrillators now so flight attendants will tend to you quickly and you may have a better chance of surviving than you do if you were in a shopping mall," he says.

"Often there are medical professionals on board anyway. Airlines know that on the vast majority of flights there is at least one physician or trained health professional, and they have very sophisticated medical kits with all kinds of medications and equipment available."

And professor Ruskin says almost all airlines have a contract with a ground-based medical consultation service. That means a physician taking care of a passenger can talk through the situation via radio with someone trained in both emergency and aviation medicine.

The most common medical conditions that arise mid-air are neurological, where people faint or get anxious and hyperventilate, gastrointestinal disorders, stomach-related illnesses that are also the leading cause of flight crew sickness, and cardiac and pulmonary disorders, such as heart attacks, chest pain or shortness of breath.

While the elderly are more at-risk, professor Ruskin says anyone with a medical condition is more likely to have something go wrong mid-air.

"Yet most people jump on board and don't think about the possible consequences. They don't realise the environment is any different than it is on the ground, but it is and that can create problems."

Even though aircraft cabins are pressurised professor Ruskin says they are not pressurised to sea level.

"The pressure altitude inside the cabin is 8000 ft (2438m), so even though you might be going from one city that's at sea level to another, on the way there you've gone to the top of a mountain."

As a result professor Ruskin says passengers take in less oxygen than they usually would.

"When your oxygen levels drop you start to breathe a little harder and faster and your heart begins to work a bit harder which increases the amount of blood being pumped around the body.

"In young healthy people that's not a problem, they will just feel a bit tired, but if you've got a pre-existing heart condition, take away some oxygen and ask your heart to work harder and you could run into problems."

Professor Ruskin is one of a number of guests speaking at the anaesthetists' conference next month. Other topics include ways to de-stress patients before surgery, particularly children and those with needle phobia, and research on the rates of dental injury.

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