Karen Allen was aboard a flight to Hawaii, eager to meet a friend for a tropical getaway, when the unthinkable happened. The Kaiser Permanente member from Auburn, California, suffered a major medical emergency. Lucky for her, 2 of the organization’s physicians also on the flight came to her rescue.
A little more than halfway through the flight, Allen woke up from a nap with tightness in her chest. She got up to stretch her legs and make a trip to the restroom, which was occupied. The last thing she remembers is perching on the armrest of an empty row to wait.
Aaron Baker, MD, a Kaiser Permanente vascular surgeon from Roseville, along with a flight attendant were the first to rush to Allen when they saw she had collapsed and was unconscious. “She was pale blue, and I could not find a pulse, so I started chest compressions,” said Dr. Baker.
J. Brandon Winchester, MD, an anesthesiologist, also from Kaiser Permanente Roseville, hurried back to help. The 2 physicians didn’t recognize each other when they boarded the plane, perhaps because they were out of their typical masks, scrubs, and caps. But when Dr. Winchester reached the woman, Dr. Baker looked up and said, “Hey, Brandon!”
Capt. Dan Nelson, a paramedic from El Dorado Hills Fire Department, and Daryl Braga, an emergency department charge nurse from Barton Medical Center in South Lake Tahoe, also came to Allen’s aid. Captain Nelson used the onboard automated external defibrillator on Allen, followed by more chest compressions.
“I’ve never seen a more impressive team suddenly come out of the woodwork,” said Dr. Winchester.
Teamwork with limited resources
Soon Allen’s pulse stabilized, consciousness returned, and her blood pressure normalized.
Even though Allen was able to answer questions, the team knew with 2 hours to go in the flight their patient wasn’t out of the woods yet. Working together, they went through the flight’s onboard medical supplies, got medicines ready, and started an IV.
“We all agreed it sounded like a heart attack, but at the time we didn’t know for sure,” said Dr. Winchester. “It was great to have everyone there to put our collective wisdom together to care for her.”
Dr. Winchester placed his own smart watch on Karen’s wrist after the cardiac arrest and resuscitation and was able to confirm she was back in sinus rhythm.
The group stayed with Allen for the remainder of the flight, checking her blood pressure manually until they landed. Emergency Medical Services met them on the runway and rushed Allen to Maui Memorial Medical Center, a Kaiser Permanente-affiliated hospital.
A reunion and a new cardiologist
“To suffer a massive heart attack over the middle of the Pacific Ocean with cardiac arrest and defibrillation, and live to talk about it is truly remarkable,” said Dr. Winchester. “I am still in complete awe at the fortunate turn of events that put us on this flight together.”
Since returning home, Allen has seen Greg Edwards, MD, her primary care physician, and Billy Chen, MD, her new cardiologist. Thanks to Kaiser Permanente’s integrated system with Maui Memorial, the doctors were able read up on all the details of Allen’s stay there, allowing for a safer and more seamless transition of care at home.
“The heart attack has happened and has gone, but there remains an injured and scarred part of her heart that has reduced her heart’s ability to pump,” said Dr. Chen. “Her primary care physician and I will work together to formulate a very structured plan for her heart health moving forward that will include surveillance, medication, and lifestyle recommendations.”
Recently, Allen reunited at Kaiser Permanente Roseville Medical Center with the life-saving team. “I had everyone I needed right there; it was just meant to be. I can’t thank you all enough. You absolutely saved my life. I’m going to make a full recovery. I think I have another good 30 years and you made it possible for me!”