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JBSA News
NEWS | Oct. 12, 2023

BAMC doc helps care for unresponsive child on plane

By Lori Newman Brooke Army Medical Center Public Affairs

A Brooke Army Medical Center physician put his skills to the test on a flight back to San Antonio when a child on the plane became unresponsive.

Army Capt. (Dr.) Ronak Patel, neurologist, was returning home with his wife and baby, after visiting family in Maryland when an urgent call asking for a physician came over the intercom.

“I didn’t hear the announcement because I had my noise-canceling headphones on, but my wife heard it and tapped me on the shoulder,” Patel said.

The flight attendant came and said they already had someone to assist but a short time later she returned to ask Patel for his help.

“The other person who volunteered was a retired Air Force physician assistant who hadn’t practiced for more than 20 years,” the doctor said. “So, we worked together. He helped with finding the medical equipment that was available on the plane.”

The parents said the 4-year-old, who had a genetic disorder and several other medical issues, wasn’t responding when they tried to wake her. They checked her oxygen level, and it was only at about 40%. Her normal oxygen level is 90% or above.

“She was breathing very shallow, rapid breathes,” Patel said. “She had a tracheostomy tube from past surgeries, but the parents said she wasn’t currently oxygen dependent.”

They tried giving her oxygen and it helped a little, but not as much as they hoped it would.

“When we opened her trach, she gave a little cough and we could hear her congestion,” he said.

The parents told Patel that she had been sick a couple of days earlier and that she was on antibiotics.

“I asked if they had some type of suction device on the plane, but the parents said they had one and a nebulizer in their bags,” Patel said. “We were able to suck some mucus out through the trach tube and give her a nebulizer treatment. Then her oxygen level started to go up, but as soon as we would take the oxygen mask off it would start to drop again.”

Even though her oxygen level was back in the 90s, she still wasn’t waking up, so they collectively made the decision to divert the plane to Houston so the child could get additional medical treatment.

“As we made that decision, she slowly started wiggling around so I asked her mother to call her name and stimulate her by tapping her a little,” he said. “Then she did open her eyes and give a good cough. We tried to keep her awake until the plane landed, but she was in and out.”

As soon as the plane landed Emergency Medical Services came and took the child off the plane, so Patel doesn’t know the outcome.

“Am just happy I was there and able to assist,” he said. “I hope that she was able to get the additional care she needed to recover.”