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A Trusted Friend in a Complicated World

Flight Attendants Reveal the In-Flight Medical Emergencies They’ll Never Forget

Between babies, allergies, and several near calls—you'll have a new respect for flight attendants.

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Rear View of Air Stewardess Explaining Aeroplane Safety to PassengersJames Lauritz/Getty Images

Medical emergencies at 10,000 feet

“I’ve been a flight attendant for three years and I’ve been on five flights with medical emergencies,” says Jake M. (who asked that we not use his last name or the airline he works for, as did all the flight attendants interviewed for this story). “It’s kind of a running joke with the crew now, not to fly with me ’cause something crazy always seems to happen!” Inflight medical emergencies happen more often than you think, just one of the 13 things flight attendants won’t tell you but you need to know.

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Lufthansa flight attendantRUBEN RAMOS/Getty Images

“Whatever you do, don’t act like a passenger”

Jokes aside, Jake says flight attendants are well trained in emergency medical care, going beyond the basics of first aid. “I learned how to start an IV, use an AED defibrillator, administer Narcan (a drug used to reverse opioid overdoses), perform CPR, and recognize a variety of medical issues like a stroke, heart attack, and diabetic shock, basically we learn how to do everything to stabilize someone until we can get them to medical help,” he says. Flight attendants are also experts at dealing with children on flights!

But the number one rule they’re taught in dealing with a crisis? “Whatever you do, don’t act like a passenger, which means that you have to have the mindset that you are in charge. If you’re calm then they will be calm,” he explains. “If they start screaming you do not get to start screaming.”

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Businessman napping in airplane on his business travelEnes Evren/Getty Images

“I learned why they call Narcan the Lazarus drug!”

One of my most memorable flights happened on a red-eye at midnight, flying out of LAX. As I walked down the aisle I saw a man slumped over with his head against the seat in front of him but I just assumed he was sleeping. About 30 minutes later another passenger called me over and it quickly became clear he wasn’t sleeping, in fact, he was passed out and barely breathing. His face was this horrible purple-gray color, I’ll never forget it because it was this color that I didn’t even know a human could be. The passenger and I immediately got him onto the floor and a doctor came running over and found the guy completely unresponsive. I showed the doctor the medical cabinet and he grabbed the Narcan [a spray medication used to treat opioid overdoses] and sprayed the guy. He woke right up! The man said he was terrified of flying so he’d taken “a few” Xanax and Vicodin before boarding to calm down. The doctor said it was probably more like a handful because the man was nearly dead and probably would have died by the time we landed if the person next to him hadn’t been paying attention. Thankfully no one died and now I understand why they call Narcan “the Lazarus drug”! —Ashlee P.

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Medicines in handamphotora/Getty Images

“Ma’am you need to pull your pants up right now!”

I once was in the middle of an international meal service from Tel Aviv, Israel, to Newark, New Jersey, and we were on a B777-200 aircraft, so it had two aisles. All of a sudden I hear my coworker from across the airplane in the other aisle say in a very matter of fact tone, “Ma’am, you need to pull your pants up right now and go back to your seat.” When I asked what was going on he said he’d simply told her the seatbelt sign was on and she needed to return to her seat—and she mooned him! The passenger was so intoxicated that she couldn’t find her seat and ended up sitting on some guy’s lap and passing right out. We managed to drag her back to her seat and she stayed passed out for the rest of the flight. We thought she was drunk but after we landed a passenger turned in a big bottle of pills, enough to sedate a horse, with the mooning lady’s name on it. It turns out she was self-medicating because she didn’t like flying. —Erika T.

Mooning is definitely poor etiquette but do you know the 10 good manners that make flying easier for everyone?

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Close up of senior man in wheelchairRUNSTUDIO/Getty Images

“I bet I scared you!”

We were in the middle of a long international flight when an elderly gentleman near me stood up, fainted, and hit his head on an armrest. I tried to grab him but he fell right through my arms. I actually yelled, “Is there a doctor on board?!” just like you see in the movies. And it turns out there were two! We always carry some basic medical supplies on board, so the first doctor started an IV and the second doctor checked his blood sugar, heart, and head. They determined he was having a cardiac event. Plus, he was bleeding badly from the wound on his head. He had a pulse so they didn’t use the AED. They gave him a couple of stitches to close the wound on his head and basically kept him comfortable until we could make an emergency landing. It took a sweet turn a few weeks later when he asked to come back and talk to all of us. After thanking us for helping save his life, he stood up to leave. I asked if I could help him and he said, “Not you! You didn’t catch me the last time!” For a minute I thought he was really upset with me but then he smiled. “I bet I scared you!” he laughed and let me walk him back to his wheelchair. — Stuart F.

Add this to the 17 things you should never say to a flight attendant.

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I will always love you...eclipse_images/Getty Images

“She wouldn’t calm down until I held her hand”

There was an elderly woman with dementia on a flight from Dulles to Sea-Tac who was basically being transferred from the care of one of her adult children to the other. It became clear very early on that she had no idea what was happening and was completely terrified. She was crying, calling out, and kept trying to get out of her seat. She was very loud—scaring and upsetting the other passengers. We kept trying to explain to her but she just didn’t get it. Finally, I sat down in the seat next to her, held her hand, and asked how I could help her. She started talking to me and I didn’t understand most of it but I think she thought I was her daughter. I sat next to her the whole flight and she stayed calm. It’s probably not what most people think of as a medical emergency but I think I really helped her. —Emily S.

If you’re flying with someone who is scared, use these 12 tips to get over a fear of flying.

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Woman injecting herself in the thighSCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY/Getty Images

“Don’t eat peanuts if you’re allergic to peanuts!”

We stopped serving nuts or anything with peanuts in it as an inflight snack years ago due to the possibility of allergic reactions. So I was surprised when a passenger frantically flagged me down saying her friend was allergic to peanuts and was having a massive reaction. The woman had an epi-pen but she’d already used it and was still having trouble breathing. Thankfully there was an EMT on board who rushed over. He said epi-pens only delay the reaction, they don’t cure it. The woman was struggling so hard to breathe, it was terrifying. We immediately told the pilot to make an emergency landing. The EMT managed to get her to swallow some Benadryl and another person on the plane donated their epi-pen which got the woman through until we could land. She vomited violently repeatedly during landing. We had to quarantine off three rows of seats. Afterward, her friend told us that she’d bought a bag of trail mix in the airport knowing that it had peanuts in it and thought she could just “pick around them”! —Fatima H.

Bringing any medications you may need is one of the 16 tips for smooth flying.

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Seniors Taking on the World, man sleeping in planeamriphoto/Getty Images

“It was like Weekend at Bernie’s

Years ago I was working a long intercontinental flight when I was quietly made aware by some of my coworkers that a passenger had passed. Apparently he’d had a heart attack and died quietly in his chair. A doctor onboard checked his pulse and said there was nothing to be done at that point. We were taught in FA school that this happens sometimes but the important part is not to make a big deal out of it or it will scare everyone on board. We weren’t sure what to do so my friend and I tucked a blanket around him and pulled his hat low over his face and put sunglasses on him. He did not look right! My friend said it was like that movie Weekend at Bernie’s and it totally gave us the giggles. But no one said anything and to this day I don’t think any of the other passengers had a clue they were flying with a dead guy. —Lynda B.

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AED exercises in train at WarsawNurPhoto/Getty Images

“I’d only been a flight attendant for a few weeks”

Just one month into my career, we were taxiing down the runway to fly from New Orleans to LAX when all of a sudden the call lights all went off. Another flight attendant went to check and I could hear her yelling for help. I ran out and found an old man slumped over in his seat, convulsing with his eyes rolled back in his head. I tried to talk to him and at first, he seemed like he could hear me but then he was just out, not breathing, no pulse. I called for the AED and a doctor from the next row over came running to help me. We attached the wires to his chest but before we shocked him, I tried to push him back up into his chair and yelled loudly. At which point he suddenly opened his eyes and started breathing again! The pilot had already turned the plane around and called for an ambulance so we just had to try to keep him conscious until paramedics could get on board. The craziest part though was I saw him exactly a week later on the flight back to New Orleans. It turns out he’d had a diabetic seizure and a stroke and had just been released from the hospital to fly home. He was grouchy because he’d had to miss his cruise but he did say thanks for saving his life. —Jake M.

Flight attendants reveal more of their craziest airline passenger stories.

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High angle view of healthcare workers consoling female patient on hospital gurneyMaskot/Getty Images

“It was the worst panic attack in the history of panic attacks”

I was the flight lead on a red-eye flight to Dallas. We were almost there when we hit some bad turbulence. As far as that goes, I can take a lot of bumps and drops without worrying but it’s often very scary for passengers. This particular time, I was alerted by a woman in the back of the plane screaming for help. When I made it back there, the woman in the seat next to her was passed out and the first lady said the woman had hit her head on the monitor in front of her. I shook her and she kind of woke up, said she was having extreme chest pain and difficulty breathing. We thought it was a heart attack and at that point, the fastest thing to do was continue on to Dallas. The pilot turned down the cabin temperature as low as it would go to try to help keep her cool and I held an oxygen mask over her face but she was 100 percent unconscious when we landed. EMTs rushed on the plane and took her off on a stretcher. I asked them later if she was OK because I was really worried about her. It turns out that she’d just had a massive panic attack! Apparently you can really make yourself pass out from anxiety. —Niko O.

Do you panic when you fly too? Read these 6 facts about flying that will calm your fears.

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Woman feeling sick and puking in AirplaneEnes Evren/Getty Images

“I hope their marriage went better than their honeymoon”

There was a young couple flying home from Hawaii on one of my flights. I’d noticed that they seemed kind of under the weather at the beginning but I didn’t think much about it. Then about 45 minutes after takeoff the woman went running for the lavatory. She was in there for quite some time and her new husband followed her about ten minutes later looking very anxious. Finally, she came out and I got a whiff and could see the toilet had been destroyed but her husband ran in before I could say anything. They alternated like that, taking turns in the lavatory for the entire flight and it became clear they were both desperately ill. Between bathroom sessions, the man told me they must have eaten some bad food the night before and now they had terrible food poisoning “coming out both ends.” It’s about a six-hour flight back to Los Angeles and I started to get worried that they were getting dehydrated. My coworker, who is also an EMT, ended up starting an IV in both of them. The wife finally fell asleep laying on the floor in front of the bathroom door. We just kind of blocked off the whole end of the plane for them and let them stay there until it was time to land. The smell was horrific. The worst part was on the way off the plane he mentioned it was their honeymoon! —Marcia W.

Check out the 15 pet peeves all flight attendants have.

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Mother Donates Organs To Save Her Son?s LifeBarcroft Media/Getty Images

“Being part of saving a life is the best feeling”

Sometimes human organs are taken on passenger planes to be delivered to the recipient. I always give the person carrying the cooler extra drinks (non-alcoholic, of course) and snacks and bump them up to first class if I can. Those are some of my favorite flights because it feels like we’re doing something important. I remember one flight where we were carrying a heart for a child and due to circumstances were getting close to the critical window for where it would no longer be viable. Everyone was panicking, knowing how valuable hearts are. The pilot radioed ahead and we got to skip the line for landing, went to the closest gate and there was an ambulance waiting right on the tarmac. We heard later that they made it just in time and the surgery was a success. —Angie A.

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Portrait of a woman with a headache on an airplanekosmos111/Getty Images

“I saw this stream of pus and blood running down her neck”

Flying back from Europe, I heard some commotion from the passengers during takeoff. As soon as I could, I went over to see what the matter was. There was a girl, probably college-aged, just sobbing and holding her face. As soon as I saw her I knew immediately that her ears were clogged and the air pressure change was causing a lot of pain. I tried all of my tricks from two decades of being a flight attendant—giving her Tylenol and Benadryl, putting warm towels over her ears, telling her to yawn, chewing gum, a little wine—but nothing was working. She was trying to be quiet but her cries were heartbreaking and everyone had turned around to watch. Then, all of a sudden, she stopped crying and sat up and said the pain was gone. When she pulled her hands away from her ears I could see some nasty goo running down her neck. She’d had a bad sinus infection and her eardrum had ruptured. I’m not sure what happened afterward if she lost hearing or anything, but she was fine the rest of the flight. —Leo T.

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Front view of an airplaneGreg Bajor/Getty Images

“The unscheduled stop wasn’t to refuel”

I was on a flight once where the pilot started having pain in his chest and his left arm. We immediately knew he was having a heart attack. The copilot took over the flight and told us, flight attendants (FA), to keep the passengers calm while we made an emergency landing. Two FAs with medical training stayed in the cockpit to help him while the rest of us went back out. I was really worried because the pilot was a good friend but I stayed calm. We told the passengers we just needed to make a quick stop to refuel but in reality, an ambulance met the airplane and we got a new pilot! We made it to our destination a bit late but they never knew anything was wrong. My pilot friend ended up needing open-heart surgery but he’s OK now. —Maria Q.

Inflight emergencies happen more often than you think, just one of the 40 things your pilot won’t tell you.

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Close up of newborn African baby in blanketER Productions Limited/Getty Images

“He is our youngest customer to date!”

In a strange twist of fate, a woman flying from San Juan, Puerto Rico, to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, gave birth mid-flight to a baby boy on a JetBlue plane actually named Born to be Blue. Spokeswoman Jen Dang said that Flight 1954’s flight attendants, along with medical personnel on board, helped deliver JetBlue’s “youngest customer to date” during the two hour and 50-minute journey. As a tribute to the baby, the airline offered to rename the plane after whatever name the new parents picked. —USA Today

These are 15 of the craziest requests passengers have ever made on airplanes.

Charlotte Hilton Andersen
Charlotte Hilton Andersen, BS, MS, has been covering health, fitness, parenting, and culture for many major outlets, both in print and online, for 15 years. She's the author of two books, co-host of the Self Help Obsession podcast, and also does freelance editing and ghostwriting. She has appeared in television news segments for CBS, FOX, and NBC.