Physician Assistant Helps Save Passenger’s Life During Flight to Colombia

Guillermo Restrepo, PA,

Guillermo Restrepo, PA, a physician assistant at the department of neurosurgery at Lenox Hill Hospital, was on a flight to his native Colombia to spend time with his family, when suddenly half way through the flight, a male passenger, 76, became very sick. 

The passenger became nauseous, possibly had a seizure and passed out.  The flight attendants made an announcement to ask if there were any doctors or nurses on board to offer medical assistance. 

“When I heard the call for help, while not a doctor, I identified myself as a physician assistant,” said Mr. Restrepo. “I immediately checked the passenger’s pulse and blood pressure which were both very low.”

As the first course of action, the passenger immediately was administered oxygen to help with his breathing, an intravenous access was established by Mr. Restrepo and intravenous (IV) fluid was administered.  The IV fluid consisted of normal saline for fluid resuscitation, in an effort to increase his blood pressure.  The passenger was stabilized.

“When the passenger was more responsive, I was able to get a brief medical history,” said Mr. Restrepo. “While he was able to state that he had a history of high blood pressure, coronary artery disease which required stents, it could not be determined why he suffered a seizure.”

Mr. Restrepo talked to the passenger further and learned that he had a similar episode a year ago, where he felt faint, nauseous and suffered from low blood sugar levels.  After learning this additional information, the passenger was given orange juice and the IV fluid was changed from normal saline to dextrose, a simple sugar that provides the body with its primary source of energy.  To test the passenger’s blood sugar level, Mr. Restrepo asked one of the flight attendants for a portable glucometer, but there wasn’t one on board.  However, a nearby passenger offered a brand new blood glucose meter, which he had on hand.  The finger pinprick test revealed that the passenger’s blood sugar level was extremely high -- 600 (a normal level is between 70-100 mg/dl). Upon obtaining a glucose level, the fluid was switched back to normal saline.

“This was a cause for concern as the passenger could have gone into a diabetic coma,” said Mr. Restrepo.  “It was clear that he was suffering from hyperglycemia, which occurs when the blood sugar levels are extremely high.  Diabetics can be treated with insulin, however there was none on board.”

At that time, the flight’s Captain asked Mr. Restrepo if he felt that the passenger was stable enough to continue the flight to Medellin, Columbia.  At first, Mr. Restrepo initially thought it would be okay to continue.   However, given the new information about the passenger’s very high blood sugar, the seizure, and the fact that there was another two and a half hours to get to the flight’s scheduled destination, Mr. Restrepo recommended that the plane be diverted to Barranquilla, Columbia.  Barranquilla was much closer, only one-hour away.  Mr. Restrepo stayed with passenger the whole time until the plane landed in Barranquilla.

As the passenger was about to leave the plane with the airport’s medical personnel, he stopped to thank Mr. Restrepo for helping to save his life.  Mr. Restrepo and the passenger exchanged phone numbers. Mr. Restrepo reminded the passenger to seek proper medical care to find out the underlying cause for his seizure.

“I decided to become a physician assistant because it is a great way to help the sick,” said Mr. Restrepo.  “Physician assistants make up an important part of the health care work force and play an integral role in the diagnosis and treatment of patients.  We work closely with doctors, nurse practitioners, nurses and other health care personnel to help people in their time of illness.  As a PA, it was extremely rewarding to be able to help the passenger on board who was in a very dire situation.  It reminds me of the importance of what I do every day and that I can make a difference in the lives of people everywhere, even on a flight to Colombia!”

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ABOUT LENOX HILL HOSPTIAL

Lenox Hill Hospital, a member of Northwell Health, is a 652-bed, fully accredited, acute care hospital located on Manhattan’s Upper East Side with a national reputation for outstanding patient care and innovative medical and surgical treatments. US News & World Report has ranked the hospital among the nation’s top 50 in Cardiology and Heart Surgery and among the top 10 hospitals in the state of New York with a total of 11 “high performing” designations for its clinical performance in Cancer, Diabetes & Endocrinology, Ear, Nose & Throat, Gastroenterology & GI Surgery, Geriatrics, Gynecology, Nephrology, Neurology & Neurosurgery, Orthopedics, Pulmonology and Urology. For more information, go to www.lenoxhillhospital.org

Lenox Hill Hospital

Lenox Hill Hospital is a 652-bed, acute care hospital located on Manhattan's Upper East Side. A staple in the community for more than 150 years, the hospital has earned a national reputation for outstanding patient care and innovative medical and surgical treatments. The mission of Lenox Hill Hospital is to deliver outstanding healthcare with compassion and respect, to promote wellness in its communities, and to advance the field of medicine through education and research.