To Treat Or Not To Treat, At 30,000 Feet?

Originally published on May 24, 2011 3:05 pm

Ever since my sister was 12-years-old, she was destined to be a doctor. Well, that's what she told herself, after countless hours spent watching E.R. on sick days and after school. Fast forward a decade, and she's many steps closer to making that dream a reality.

She just finished her first year of med school at Wayne State University in Detroit, and is now completing a summer research program at the National Institutes of Health. Every time a cousin or aunt hears about her aspirations to heal the wounded and sick, we make jokes about cutting us "family discounts" on treatment, no matter what the ailment. Yet my sister wants to work specifically in the field of pediatric physical therapy. She's learning the basics in school right now, but the specialty is in her sights. So I wondered, what if an adult on the plane she's riding goes into anaphylactic shock or has a heart attack? Is she required to step in and do something?

The Health section of The New York Times addressed situations like these in an article about doctors tending to in-flight emergencies. There are many decisions to make in the moment — as a doctor, do you "do what seems right" and address the situation or speak up at all if someone needs help? While FAA guidelines say flight attendants must be CPR certified, and each plane must carry emergency medical kits, doctors have found that preparations aren't standard on each flight. What's even more surprising is that the reporting of the incidents isn't uniform from airline to airline, according to an article in The Journal of the American Medical Association.

Needless to say, I imagine this puts doctors at a crossroads. I've yet to ask my sister what she'd do if she encountered an in-flight emergency. Something tells me she'd weigh her options, then do as much as she could to be a good Samaritan.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit