The Spirit Of The Heart

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Post written by  Ismael Nuño, MD.

Boarding the plane to Paris, I reminisced about the call I had received only two months before inviting me to speak at a scientific congress in Va­lencia, Spain. It would be the perfect opportunity for a family vacation as well, so I jumped at the chance. Immediately I called my three sisters. We agreed that two would join me on the flight from Los Angeles while the other, who lives in Greece, would meet the rest of us in Spain.

As my two sisters and I embarked on the first leg of our flight, we celebrated our holiday with drinks, dinner and laughter. After the meal, the lights dimmed inside the aircraft and we settled down to sleep. It would be a long flight to France. As we left the American Continent, we were four hours from landing at the Charles De Gaul Airport in Paris for our connecting flight. I closed my eyes and relaxed, looking forward to my time off from work and the festive days that lay ahead.

Suddenly, I was awakened by a strange cough from my older sister, who was sitting to my left. As I turned my head to see her, my heart plummeted with despair. She was rapidly turning blue before my eyes. Her breathing had stopped. When I searched for her pulse I found none. Nor could I feel her heartbeat within her chest. I yelled out loud for help from the flight atten­dants and I began to administer cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) right on her seat—a couple of mouth to mouth breaths, followed by two thumps with my closed fist to her breastbone, then chest compressions. After a few very long seconds the flight attendants surrounded us. My sister had begun to breathe again, and, thankfully, she opened her eyes. Several flight attendants and I dragged her body to the nearest galley of the airplane.

One flight attendant grabbed the intercom and asked the cabin of passengers if there was a doctor on board.

“I’M A DOCTOR!” I shouted. “I’M A HEART SURGEON!”

I took my California Medical License from my wallet and showed it to her. It was finally then that they opened the first aid kit consisting of IV solu­tions, needles, medications and oxygen. A colleague of mine also happened to be on the same flight and he joined me in continuing the resuscitation. The flight attendant in charge then handed me the telephone and said that the flight captain wished to speak with me.

“We need to get this patient, my sister, down to appropriate medical care,” I demanded.

“Doctor, we just left the Eastern Seaboard of the North American Continent. There is a terrible snowstorm below us and, if lucky, our first chance to land will be in Iceland.”

“But this woman is sick, she needs help NOW,” I demanded again, begging. My heart was breaking.

“Well, I either kill two hundred people in a snowstorm or we lose your sister.” The captain said very gravely.

After a moment of reflection, I said, “Give me thirty minutes and let’s see if she stabilizes.”

Fortunately, my sister’s condition improved. For the remainder of the flight to Charles De Gaulle Airport, she lay flat on her back with an IV drip in her arm. I knelt beside my sister, who was lying on the floor of the galley with flight attendants all around us. I watched her IV drip slowly infuse into her arm. My sister opened her eyes up and gently smiled, not knowing how close she had come to her death. As I knelt beside her I could hear the whine of the jet engines of Air France flight 45 bound for Paris, France. When we landed, an ambulance met us at the gate. A doctor came into the airplane and rushed her on a gurney via ambulance to the emergency room located within the airport. After three days of observation, she was stable enough to be flown back to Los Angeles. In the bustle of airplanes, gurneys, and emergencies, my sister lost her American passport. On our return flight, my sister had to beg the immigration officer to be allowed to return. The only choice was to go to the US Embassy located in Downtown Paris. The underwear bomber had just tried to destroy an airplane bound for Detroit from Paris and French officials were on guard. We bought tickets again to satisfy the requirements set forth by the French airport officers. Eventually we made it to America. I transferred her to USC-University Hospital and she underwent an extensive work up. After receiving a permanent pacemaker she made a full recovery. Needless to say, I never made it to my speaking engagement or to our vacation in Spain.

Dr. Nuño was born in Mexico and has written the book The Spirit Of The Heart.  He obtained his MD in 1976.  He received training in General Surgery and subsequently in Cardio-Thoracic Surgery at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC.  Dr. Nuño was in the US Army for a period of ten years.  He was Deputy Commander of 5th MASH during the Gulf War.  The last 15 years of his career were as Chief of Cardiac Surgery at LAC+USC Medical Center in Los Angeles, California.  He is now retired and lives in Marina del Rey, California.

photo source: flickr.com

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