Thursday, November 16, 2023


Mackay and Whitsunday Life


Mackay Base Hospital doctor Pieter Nel was on a flight to New Zealand for a medical conference recently when he heard a call over the PA system: ‘’If there's a medical doctor on the plane, please press the call button’’.

“Then I saw a few people up front and somebody lying on the floor.”

With 37 years of experience in medicine, 23 of those in the Mackay Base Hospital Emergency Department, he was certainly the right person to step in.

“The person lying on the floor was not a good colour,” Dr Nel said.

“He was an elderly man and he was not looking responsive.

“So I went through the normal ‘ABCD’ (of emergency care).

“This was not a good situation. The person was not responding to verbal commands. He was unconscious and there was no radial pulse.

“I found out he had a lung problem and was carrying Ventolin, so we gave him oxygen and we got a strong pulse back, and he started talking to us.

“We were about an hour out of Auckland, so we got him in the front seat, and I sat with him to monitor him.

“It was a situation where, if we didn’t address it, he may have had a full-blown respiratory arrest.

“There were a few times I thought he was going to lose consciousness again.

“We were then a priority landing and there was an ambulance waiting, and I was able to hand over to them.”

This was not the first time Dr Nel has answered a call for help on a plane.

In 2009 he was on a flight to Singapore when a person in a seat just behind him had an unexpected seizure.

“That was when I learned about the processes airline staff follow as I wanted to resus this patient, but first they had to make a call to a medical command centre,” Dr Nel said.

“I couldn’t just go into action. The captain made the call and connected it through to me and I had to talk to the command centre in America.

“They make the decisions around priority landing, and in the case with the Singapore flight, we were still over Australia and the decision was whether we land in Darwin or we continue to Singapore.”

In the cases he has attended to, Dr Nell later received feedback that these passengers had recovered from their sky-high emergencies.

As medical incidents are not uncommon, Dr Nel has some sound advice for travellers, particularly those on longer flights.

“People don’t understand that your oxygen saturation will normally drop by 10% on a flight and even if they control the cabin pressure it still has an impact on your cardiovascular and respiratory system,” Dr Nel said.

“So for people with comorbidities (more than one medical condition), when you sit down in a plane; that’s when things can go wrong.

“That’s why it’s important for people who are not in a good healthy condition to go to their GP to get clearance to fly.”

By Mackay Hospital and Health Service

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