The pilot of United Flight 1637 from Des Moines, Iowa, to Denver, Colorado suffered a heart attack en route, bringing to life a fear of many air travelers. A sudden announcement broadcast to passengers asked if anyone had medical experience. Then, a second announcement asked passengers if anyone had flight experience.
Two nurses responded to the pilot’s mid-flight heart attack when an announcement came over the loudspeaker asking if anyone on board had any medical experience. Linda Alweiss, from Camarillo, California, and Amy Sorenson, from Casper, Wyoming, were ready to assist. Alweiss is a pediatric intensive care nurse. She recently re-certified her training for advanced cardiac arrest. Alweiss was travelling home with her teenage daughter from their Christmas holidays. Sorenson is also a nurse.
The nurses entered the cockpit to find the pilot slumped over and mumbling. The pilots heartbeat was irregular, so the nurses asked passengers to help them pull the pilot into the galley. There the nurses set up an IV and readied a diagnostic defibrillator.
While treating the pilot, Alweiss asked the co-pilot if she knew how to fly the plane. The co-pilot said that she did, to Alweiss’ relief. However, a second announcement came over the loudspeaker asking if anyone had any flight experience.
The co-pilot of the Boeing 737 was able make a safe emergency landing in Omaha, Nebraska, where passengers were put up in a hotel for the night. These passengers continued on to Denver the next day. When the nurses went back to their seats, the other passengers cheered for them.
The incident took place 20 minutes into the December 30 flight. The treatment of the pilot took place at 30,000 feet.
Linda Alweiss stated that the pilot was suffering from possibly fatal arrhythmia, caused by a suspected heart attack or blood clot. “This is what happens in movies,” commented the other nurse, Amy Sorensen, “This isn’t what happens in real life.”
United Airlines released an initial statement that the plane had landed safely after the pilot had become ill and that the passengers were being taken care of until their journeys could continue the next day. United spokespeople would not release further information about the pilot, though, adding only that the passengers were not in any danger.
After being treated in the air for his mid-flight heart attack, the pilot of Flight 1637 was met by paramedics on the Omaha tarmac. The pilot was then entered into the cardiac unit of an Omaha hospital. He survived the attack. Alweiss was informed of the pilot’s survival when she sat next to the co-pilot on her rescheduled flight to Denver the next day.
Heart attacks aboard flights are rare, and deaths are even less common. Only 0.3 percent of medical emergencies aboard flights are cardiac arrests. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine of medical emergencies aboard five airlines over three years showed that 12,000 people had medical emergencies of some sort, but only 31 died. Of those 12,000, 920 (8 percent) had symptoms of heart attack. Another finding of the study was that there is often a doctor on board airplanes. In half of the 12,000 medical emergencies, a doctor was on hand to treat the passenger.
Even when no doctor is present, airline staff can communicate with ground-based practitioners. Every flight is required by the Federal Aviation Administration to carry an emergency medical kit and defibrillator. Any time a person has a heart attack or stroke aboard an aircraft, a pilot will be advised to consider landing immediately because those emergencies require immediate medical attention. Emergency landings result about 7 percent of mid-flight medical emergencies, such as the heart attack experienced by the pilot of United 1637.
By Day Blakely Donaldson