By James Wysong Travel columnist
updated 3/4/2008 11:35:20 AM ET 2008-03-04T16:35:20

Recent headlines brought to light the incredible story of a woman who died on an American Airlines flight from Haiti to New York. The victim’s cousin claimed that the flight attendants initially refused oxygen and then, when it was finally administered, found that the oxygen tanks were empty. Being a flight attendant myself, I find that hard to believe.

Points of note:

  • Flight attendants are retrained annually on administering oxygen.
  • All crew members are required to check their emergency equipment, including the supplemental oxygen tanks, before every flight.

I mean, really. Why would anyone refuse oxygen to an ill passenger? I am not saying that it didn’t happen, but to me, it just doesn’t make sense.

In my own flying career of 20 years, I have had two passengers die in flight, one of natural causes, the other from an accident.

The first death involved an elderly couple traveling home from Europe. It was their first trip outside the U.S.; the gentleman knew he was ill, but he wanted to see the world while there was still time. He died on board the airplane, about three hours before landing. His wife knew what had happened, but not wanting to cause a commotion — and realizing that there was nothing anyone could do — she remained silent, her husband appearing to be asleep beside her. She flagged me down at the end of the flight and informed me of her husband’s passing.

The second death involved a passenger who apparently got a piece of meat caught in his throat. Instead of causing a scene, he went to the lavatory, where he choked to death.

Here are some tips to remember if you start feeling ill in flight:

1. Reach out
Tell a flight attendant. Contrary to popular belief, our first responsibility is to help passengers in medical emergencies. Passing out drinks comes second.

2. Call the doc
If your gut instinct tells you that something is just not right ask a flight attendant to make an announcement requesting a doctor’s help. Every time I have paged for a doctor or a registered nurse, at least one has come forward.

3. Talk history
Try to mention any medications, previous conditions or pertinent medical history. If you are prone to seizures, blackouts or confusion, have this information available in your wallet or purse. This information is very important to an examining physician or nurse.

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4. Break out the oxygen
Contrary to some accounts of the recent headline story, flight attendants are ready to administer supplemental oxygen at your request.

5. Be sensible
If you are taking medications that don’t interact well with alcohol, don’t drink on board. Most onboard medical emergencies come from mixing medications with alcohol. The cabin is pressurized to 8,000 feet, not sea level, and that altitude change can surprise even the most experienced medicine takers.

6. Cause a scene
Better to express your illness than die in silence. Remember the passenger who ran to the lavatory instead of clutching his throat making gasping noises? He would probably be around today if he had made others aware of his plight.

7. Think about those pre-existing conditions
Don’t fly if there is a threat to your health; check with your doctor if you have any concerns at all.

8. Don’t panic
Many heart attacks are actually caused by the fear of having a heart attack. If your chest is unusually tight, don’t assume you are having a heart attack (it could just be anxiety), but let a flight attendant know of your discomfort, just in case.

9. Love your airport medic
After landing, let the emergency medical team check you out. Nobody likes being hauled off in an ambulance, but it is better to be safe than sorry. I had one passenger insist that he was all right, only to suffer a burst appendix on his connecting flight.

10. Don’t forget to write
If you get taken away by the medical team, update the airline on your condition as soon as you can with a letter. The flight attendants who took care of you would love to know the outcome. Way too often we hear nothing and are left to wonder.

When I worked for Pan Am and was new to this business, I was involved in a save. A 56-year-old man reeking of scotch and cigarettes collapsed in the aisle. Another flight attendant and I were the first to respond and we began CPR on the victim. I performed chest compressions as she performed mouth-to–mouth resuscitation. After five long minutes, we were able to get a pulse and shallow breathing.

I was covered in sweat and in total disbelief about what had happened. I was very proud of myself and of the seriousness of my chosen profession — that is, until the nearest passenger tapped me on the shoulder. Instead of offering a “Way to go, champ,” he asked me for a Coke.

When we landed, my colleague and I were honored with a congratulatory certificate disguised as a legal waiver — to protect the airline in case of a lawsuit. Ah, I still believe that the sentiment there was genuine and touching.

The gentleman did send us a thank-you card with a recent picture of him and his grandchildren, made special by the inevitable cigarette burning in his left hand. But hey, it was the thought that counted!

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