Life and Death at 30k feet; Sen. Duckworth fights to equip airplanes with EpiPens

Published: Jul. 25, 2023 at 3:18 PM CDT
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WASHINGTON (Gray DC) - You may have experienced this while flying - A call comes over the PA asking, “is there a doctor on board?”

That call came for Minnesota Dr. Klaus Suehler on a flight from Munich to Chicago a few years back.

“One of the passengers- his face is all swollen up. He was kind of getting puffy around the eyes, puffy around his mouth,” said Dr. Suehler.

The passenger had eaten an in-flight meal that contained cashews.  He was having a severe allergic reaction, so Dr. Suehler reached for the emergency kit.

“There was a slot for an EpiPen, but unfortunately, the slot was empty.”

Suehler says there’s about a half hour window to administer injectable epinephrine once symptoms present to save someone from anaphylactic shock.

“There’s not a whole lot of time, even with the diversion of the airplane in the middle of the ocean - It’ll take an hour or two to get to a place where people could get proper medical care,” said Dr. Suehler. “I think it would be too late if somebody had truly a bad reaction.”

Thankfully, there was enough epinephrine on board to help the passenger, but not everyone is so lucky.

A study from the New England Journal of Medicine found 11,920 recorded in-flight emergencies from 2008 to 2010. Those range from heart attacks and strokes, to preventable anaphylactic shock.

“I think most people would be surprised that it’s not a requirement that epinephrine injectors, auto pens are in onboard emergency kits,” said Senator Tammy Duckworth.

Duckworth, a former Army helicopter pilot who outfitted her own in-flight emergency kits, is now introducing legislation to equip all domestic flights with Injectable epinephrine.

“To think that something as simple as an epinephrine injector is not on board or is to me, a glaring oversight,” said Duckworth.

The Senator is including the measure in the FAA reauthorization bill, which  is expected to come to a vote in the upcoming weeks.