They say improvisation is the mother of invention, especially in the case of a medical emergency at 30,000 feet when there are no surgical instruments to be found. Although the scenario seems far-fetched, how many times has this situation occurred in television shows, films, and books? Heroic individuals are left to their own devices, some with supposed medical degrees and others we are left to believe are capable of just about anything as a result of their skill and creativity in the saving of a life via the use of a pen and rubber band.
What the public may not know is that a few of these fictitious scenarios are based upon situations that actually occurred in reality and were then immortalized in medical dramas, on television, and in movies. One such medical emergency was such an impressive feat, it resonates with readers young and old. Envision this, a woman on her way to catch a flight to London via Hong Kong is involved in a motorcycle accident while in route. Immediately following the plane’s departure, she started to complain of pain in her arm. Doctors splinted the arm but she continued to experience even more pain and after an examination, the same doctors determined she had two or more broken ribs. Shortly after, the woman, Pauline Dixon, 39, of Aberdeen, Scotland started to experience shortness of breath which eventually worsened as she struggled to breathe.
The medical kit on board… was sufficient for the delivery of a baby but did not contain the equipment necessary to perform an operation.
It was evident to the two doctors on the flight, that Mrs. Dixon was suffering from a pneumothorax, or collapsed lung, which was in need of draining to remove excess air. The medical kit on board, according to one of the physicians, a Dr. Angus Wallace, was sufficient for the delivery of a baby but did not contain the equipment necessary to perform an operation. Therefore, Dr. Wallace alongside fellow doctor, Tom Wong, were left to use whatever they could locate from passengers and various other items onboard the plane to perform the surgery. After establishing a makeshift operating room by hanging blankets around the aft section of the plane, the doctors, one a Nottingham-based orthopedic surgeon and professor, and the other a senior doctor at a Scottish medical facility, made use of scalpel they found in the medical kit to open the woman’s chest. They expanded the space slightly with a fork and knife and inserted a urinary catheter into the incision. The catheter proved to be too flexible, so it was stabilized with a coat hanger that had been sterilized in brandy. The doctors then secured a mineral water bottle to the end to seal it and avoid air escaping.
The operation took less than a few minutes time and when it was finished the woman started to breathe normally once again. Dr. Wallace said the woman was conscious throughout and had only had a little anesthetic administered into her skin. He went further to state that,”I was sweating a bit, to say the least, and the first thing I did when the job was done was drink the brandy. If she had known how much I was worried she would probably have panicked more,” and calling the procedure the most unusual he had ever taken part in.
“I was sweating a bit, to say the least, and the first thing I did when the job was done was drink the brandy.”
Mrs. Dixon, who had been visiting family in Hong Kong said that she had walked away uninjured from the motorcycle accident or so she thought and was unaware she was injured. She said that the surgery performed at roughly 30,000 feet above the ground was one of the most frightening experiences of her life, but that she was eternally grateful to the doctors for saving her life. Although this medical emergency occurred nearly 23 years ago and as a result of changes in travel regulations altering, items available to perform improvised surgeries may vary. It should be noted that medical professionals are not legally obligated to perform treatment to sick or injured people or respond to medical emergencies on planes, however, some would argue that their medical oaths imply an ethical obligation.