Torrey Laack, M.D., has a story he likes to tell friends and medical students about his experience during an in-flight emergency. It's actually more about what it means to be an emergency physician and how they and other specialists complement one another (and perhaps unintentionally compliment one another) than it is about dealing with an in-flight emergency. And it's the kind of story he thought would be just about right for the Change of Shift section of the Annals of Emergency Medicine.
As the story goes, Dr. Laack and his family -- Nadia Laack, M.D., a Mayo radiation oncologist, and the couple's two young boys -- were flying to Anchorage, Alaska. They were given an upgrade (just one upgrade) to first class, and the Drs. Laack took turns enjoying life in coach with the boys and a brief respite in first class. Since Dr. Nadia Laack needed to work on a talk she was giving in Anchorage, she took the first shift up front. When she offered to switch, Dr. Torrey Laack "gladly took her up on this offer." But about the time he was settling in, the in-flight emergency part of the story took off.
"A hasty tap on the shoulder soon interrupted my relaxation," he writes. A flight attendant "with a worried look on her face" asked him, "Are you a physician?" and followed with, "We need you in the back right away." Once there, he found a passenger who was unresponsive. When Dr. Laack introduced himself as an emergency physician, a man who had been attending to the woman said, "Oh, good! I am an ENT surgeon." He then turned things over to Dr. Laack and offered to "get some more history." Long story short, after an IV and fluids, the woman's condition improved, and Dr. Laack was "offered the flight attendant's jump seat" to continue attending to the passenger. (He never made it back to first class.)
Dr. Laack writes that emergency physicians are sometimes seen by others in medicine as "triage docs" but most "come to terms with this, knowing that we do more than people realize." Looking back on this incident, he writes, "While there are times when I feel underappreciated, on the airplane that day, I could not have felt more respected." In fact, he later learned that his wife had calmly informed the flight attendant, "My husband is a physician."
"Experiences like this are a reminder that we each have different areas of expertise and comfort," Dr. Laack tells us. "While we can take pride in the work we do, we also do so with the humility of knowing there is not a single physician or health care provider in any specialty that can truly work alone." He concludes his essay with this: "Later, when I was faced with a patient with a subglottic airway obstruction in the ED, I breathed a sigh of relief, with a reminiscent exclamation of 'Oh good!' as I saw an ENT surgeon walk through the door." And he notes, "If, heaven forbid, your child is found to have cancer, I am happy to say, 'My wife is a physician.' I will gladly disappear in search of more history."
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