Rescue at 30,000 feet

Nursing professor in the right place when fellow plane passenger has severe allergic reaction

Returning from a trip to South Korea last November, Victoria Foster, an assistant professor of nursing at Clayton State University, thought her work was done. She and Kevin Demmitt, associate vice president for extended programs, had been visiting Daejeon Health Sciences College to establish the details of an agreement between the two schools.

This summer Daejeon plans to send 15 nursing students to Clayton State, where they will take courses and learn about American culture.

“They called us because we are known for being one of the most culturally diverse colleges in the U.S.,” said Foster, BSN, MSN, Ph.D.

She was impressed with Daejeon’s campus and a new hospital nearby, and believes her own students would benefit from studying abroad there.

On the way home, Foster was feeling good about the academic mission and was anticipating a boring flight when a passenger passed out in the aisle of the plane.

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“I was in the middle seat, so I jumped over to do a quick assessment,” she recalled.

A plastic surgeon, a neurosurgeon, an Army nurse and two interns also answered the flight attendant’s call for medical help.

“We lifted her to a central part of the plane and one of the doctors handed me a stethoscope. Her blood pressure was low, 100/58 (mmHg). She was having trouble breathing and her tongue was swelling,” Foster said.

A friend of the patient informed the medical professionals that the woman was allergic to peanuts and that she had already given her an epinephrine injection, but it hadn’t stopped the reaction.

“I called for an oxygen tank and when it came, we started her on oxygen. The Army nurse gave her a shot of Benadryl, and I started an IV and began to give her fluids,” Foster said. “There was no pole, so I had to hold the bag up with my arm and squeeze it with my hand because there was no pressure bag. I wanted to get the fluids into her quickly.”

Meanwhile, the Army nurse was checking the airplane’s defibrillator and reported that the pads didn’t fit. Foster was afraid she might have to perform CPR.

Peanut allergies can be fatal, Foster explained, especially when the tongue starts swelling and cuts off the airway.

“At some point during the two-and-a-half hours that we were working on her, the pilot asked if we needed to make an emergency landing. I didn’t know at first but fortunately, after the second bag of fluids, her symptoms decreased and she could talk,” Foster recalled. “We were able to get a quick history and learned that this was her typical reaction to peanuts. She hadn’t eaten any, but thought something she ate might have come in contact with peanut oil.”

Foster sat with the woman during the rest of the flight because sometimes peanut-allergy patients have a second reaction. Paramedics met the plane at the Detroit airport and Foster learned later that the woman had fully recovered.

“I was just glad that I could help, and it definitely broke up the monotony of flying,” she said.

Foster had not been in a clinical setting since taking over the role of interim director of graduate nursing at Clayton State in July, but that doesn’t mean she wasn’t prepared.

“I had wanted to be a nurse since I was 5-years-old. My parents were in and out of the hospital and I saw nurses in action early on,” she said. “Nursing has been a wonderful experience, as has been teaching students. I love meeting them at work later and seeing their confidence.”

Foster, who has taught at Clayton State for 13 years, has plenty of clinical experience.

“I’m an intensive care nurse by training and worked a long time in oncology. I was a travel nurse and was working on an AIDS floor in California at age 24.”

When Foster was an agency nurse, she spent a summer working at Grady Memorial Hospital, which is well known for trauma care.

“Gunshot wounds, stabbings — now that was a great education,” she said.

Responding to an emergency at 30,000 feet was scarier, Foster said. The space was cramped and the equipment was either unfamiliar or just not there.

“It was a bit nerve-wracking but after 25 years as a nurse, you know what you need to do,” she said. “You just put your worries aside and do your work.”

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