note to airlines: update your medical kits


My flight from SFO was about an hour late, and I have 20 minutes to kill before the train from PHL to Wyncote arrives, so I figured I’d get a blog post in (Philadelphia International Airport has free wireless on weekends). Just after dozing off, I awoke to hear a bit of a commotion behind me, and in my daze I sensed that the conversation was turning medical. A woman was feeling really weak and dizzy, so I identified myself as a physician and started working her up. I asked the steward to get a medical kit so I could take the woman’s blood pressure, etc. I had no idea at that point what was going on, and my tendency is to assume the worst and go from there. After a few minutes, I went up to the steward who was tending to the first class folks and asked him to move it, since for all I knew, the nice passenger was having a heart attack. 

I received the medical kit, opened it and was surprised to see very little that could help me. An old-fashioned sphygmomanometer to check a blood pressure (and I do mean old-fashioned—it was a model or two behind the one I bought in med school in the 80’s). A stethoscope. And that was essentially it—everything else in there was useful for more serious stuff like an asthmatic attack or the need to establish IV access. But a thermometer? Nope. That I could live without. But what would have been great would have been a glucometer, something that is standard issue for any diabetic. I suspected, as did the steward, that the woman was hypoglycemic, and that’s something that I’ve seen before on a long flight. In that case too, I found the airplane’s medical kit to be lacking. In any event, the woman perked up with some orange juice and that essentially made the diagnosis.

The thing is, it really sucks to be in a medical situation without the proper tools. In that case, any doctor is much less useful, which is not good for the patient. I know the airlines are bleeding cash, and the cutbacks are obvious, especially when you travel 50% or more of the month as I do. But some simple things would be nice to have in an emergency, and I don’t think they’d break the banks of the airlines. This is the second time in a row where I’ve found serious limitations to what an airplane could provide in an emergency. They’re great for very serious emergencies, with a defibrillator and all that. But most things are more mundane. Would it be too much to ask for even a thermometer on board?