Dr. Matthew Rhoa is still haunted by one of his lowest moments as a physician. Several years ago, on the first leg of an international flight, he was just settling in for a nap when a flight attendant came on the public address system to ask, “Is there a doctor on the plane?”
Dr. Rhoa, who lives in San Francisco, didn’t push his call button. “As a gynecologist, I always waited for another doctor,” he said. “There’s never a need for a Pap smear at 30,000 feet.”
He fell asleep, only to be awakened an hour later by a second call for medical help. This time he answered, and at the back of the plane he found two anxious parents with their 18-month-old toddler, who had a cast on her broken leg and was crying inconsolably.
The girl’s toes were blue. Limbs can often swell in flight, and it was clear that the cast was much too tight. Dr. Rhoa slit the cast and pried it open. The girl stopped crying at once.
“I have been riddled by guilt to this day,” said Dr. Rhoa, who now promptly answers every call for medical help on a plane. “I never want that feeling again of a kid suffering like that when I could have done something sooner.”
Since the earliest days of commercial aviation, airlines have coped with medical emergencies in flight by calling on physicians who happen to be passengers. And as more people travel by air, the number of emergencies has risen accordingly.