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One doctor's experience in a mid-flight emergency opened questions about medical kits


When Dr. Andrea Merrill hopped on a plane, headed to Portugal on vacation earlier this month, she did not expect to be working while on board. But about two hours into her Delta Airlines flight...

ANDREA MERRILL: They overheaded that they needed a medical professional for a medical emergency on board. So I went up to the area where the medical emergency was happening, and they kind of handed me a red bag.

KELLY: A red bag that was the emergency medical kit. Dr. Merrill opened it and was surprised by what she saw. For example, the blood pressure cuff - not an automatic one like they have at hospitals. It was manual.

MERRILL: Where you had to pump up the cuff, use a stethoscope to listen for a pulse.


Now, the problem with that? The stethoscope included in the kit was a disposable one, making it difficult for her to hear.

MERRILL: It's hard enough in a regular doctor's office to hear much with those stethoscopes. So you can imagine, if you're 30,000 feet in the air, it was really impossible to hear anything.

CHANG: There were also things she expected to be in the kit that were not, like a glucometer to measure blood sugar. And while there was epinephrine to treat an allergic reaction, there was no EpiPen to make administration easier.

MERRILL: So it was a little bit surprising to see what was in there and what wasn't in there.

CHANG: Dr. Merrill, who works as a surgical oncologist at Boston Medical Center, wanted to share her experience and give feedback about the emergency kit to the airline. So when she landed, she tweeted and tagged Delta. Now, that tweet? It blew up.

MERRILL: There are a lot of other medical professionals who responded that they've had similar experiences on many different airlines.

KELLY: The Federal Aviation Administration regulates the standard onboard supplies that airlines must carry, but individual companies can always include more items.

PAULO ALVES: The last time the kit was modified was in 2004. It's a long time ago.

KELLY: That is Doctor Paulo Alves. He's the global medical director for Aviation Health at MedAire. That's a company that gives advice from the ground during mid-air emergencies. And he has heard the same calls for changes to the basic kit.

ALVES: Definitely, medicine has evolved quite a bit since 2004, but I know that there are efforts out there to change the regulation.

KELLY: And he says he expects those changes to come soon. In the meantime, Dr. Alves says, when you're flying, you shouldn't worry too much about the medical kits. They do have all the basics, and in-flight emergencies are rare.

CHANG: For her part, Dr. Merrill says she spoke to Delta about the needed additions to the kits. And in a statement to NPR, a Delta spokesperson said they are adding items to their medical kits this summer, including, quote, "automated blood pressure cuffs, medical-grade stethoscopes and pulse oximeters." As for the patient on that flight to Portugal? Well, Dr. Merrill says everything turned out A-OK. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alejandra Marquez Janse is a producer for NPR's evening news program All Things Considered. She was part of a team that traveled to Uvalde, Texas, months after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary to cover its impact on the community. She also helped script and produce NPR's first bilingual special coverage of the State of the Union – broadcast in Spanish and English.
Kathryn Fox
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