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Heywood Hospital Nurse Provides Lifesaving Care during In-flight Emergency

April 4, 2012



Justine DeFronzo, RN

She was dreaming of sunshine and sandy beaches as she boarded the plane bound for Florida, but Heywood Hospital’s Justine DeFronzo could never have imagined what would be waiting for her once she got in the air. A registered nurse and Director of Emergency Services at the Watkins Emergency Center at Heywood, DeFronzo was embarking on a much needed vacation with her sister and two nieces. However, about an hour into the flight, DeFronzo and the rest of the passengers were startled by loud screaming and the rushing of flight attendants. “At first I thought it was some kind of fight aboard the plane,” said DeFronzo. Seconds later, she understood the true urgency of the situation as flight attendants called for a medical team. 

In the front of the plane a middle-aged man had lost consciousness and was in danger of choking. In a testament to the spirit of New Englanders in a crisis, the flight attendants were initially inundated with helpful passengers. However, when flight attendants asked for only medically credentialed passengers to remain, it became apparent that DeFronzo would be one of the main caretakers, along with a physician from Worcester and one from Boston.

 

With her emergency care experience, DeFronzo took the lead. “His condition was serious. He was unconscious, having trouble breathing and had a thready pulse. I supported his head to maintain his airway while we tried to figure out what had happened to him,” she remembers. Limited resources on the plane made it more difficult that usual to determine what the cause was. His symptoms seemed to indicate a heart problem, but without a glucose monitor she could not rule out diabetic shock, so DeFronzo collaborated with the doctors on board to treat the most likely causes and stabilize the patient. “I started an IV and continually monitored his vital signs. But the flight was very turbulent, so it wasn’t easy. At one point, one of the doctors was even holding me by the shoulders while I worked so I wouldn’t fall down and injure myself.”

 

DeFronzo could hear one of the physicians conversing with the pilot trying to determine the next course of action. As they were flying over the ocean, stopping at a closer destination was not a good option. Thankfully, due to the quick response of the medical team, the patient was stable enough to make it to the original Florida destination. Upon arrival, the responding paramedics were fully updated on the patient’s condition due to the expert care he had received en-route.

 

DeFronzo applauds the efforts of the attendants and crew who handled this difficult mid-air emergency in a very calm and controlled manner. “It was sort of surreal,” said DeFronzo as she recalled details of the ordeal. “You just do what you have to do - what you have been trained to do. It takes right over.”

 

Since returning home DeFronzo has heard from the family of the patient. It was confirmed that he had a cardiac event, as she and the medical team had suspected, and his doctors credit the quality care he received while in-flight with saving his life. “It was a miracle that there were qualified medical professionals on board,” said DeFronzo. “I am so glad to have been able to make a difference.”

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