A Soldier used his Army medical expertise to help save a passenger’s life aboard Lufthansa flight 624 on May 18.
En route to his new duty station with Office of the Program Manager, Saudi Arabia, Sgt. 1st Class Jason Alexander took immediate action when a passenger began projectile vomiting just two hours into the flight from Frankfurt, Germany, to Riyadh.
Alexander, an OPM-SANG medical adviser, said he had just woke up from a nap when the call for emergency medical assistance came over the jet’s intercom system.
“The captain stated there was a medical emergency and asked if there was anyone onboard with medical qualifications who could render assistance,” Alexander said. “I immediately got up and flagged the flight attendant, told her I was a military medical personnel from the U.S.”
The flight attendant hurriedly escorted Alexander to the attendant station where a passenger, a Saudi Arabian national, was seated and covered in blood.
“It was pretty horrific looking,” said Alexander, describing the large pool of blood on the floor and the passenger’s blood soaked clothing.
To avoid a mass panic during the flight, he told the attendant to close the curtains. With the relatively recent Ebola outbreaks fresh in the public’s mind, Alexander said if passengers caught sight of the passenger vomiting blood, hysteria could ensue.
Alexander checked the passenger’s vitals and attempted to obtain his medical and travel history. But with the language barrier and in the passenger’s weakened state, communication proved difficult.
During Alexander’s initial assessment, a Saudi medical student arrived at the back of the plane to assist, helping translate the passenger’s responses. Alexander presumed that an infectious disease was likely not the cause of the vomiting, as the passenger had only traveled to Germany and Riyadh recently.
With or without expert communication, and regardless of his travel history, the stats were clear. In his fragile state and with the persistent vomiting, the passenger would not survive the flight without landing and receiving care by emergency personnel with the appropriate resources.
“Through the Saudi student’s translation, we found out that the passenger had been diagnosed with severe stomach ulcer and he was taking medicine for it,” Alexander said. “I’m not a doctor, but that made sense to me. It was the only thing I could relate to the amount of blood he was throwing up. Something may have irritated the ulcer, something he ate maybe, and it ruptured the ulcer and probably tore the stomach lining, resulting in the severe vomiting.”
He instructed the flight attendant to relay the seriousness of the issue to the captain.
“It was a pretty simple call for me. We had to land immediately,” he said. “We were still over two hours from Riyadh. I told her we needed to get on the ground now. He was not going to last long enough to reach our destination.”
Alexander continued to make the passenger — strapped in for a secure landing —comfortable and monitor his fading vitals until the plane landed 20 minutes later.
When the plane landed, emergency personnel evacuated the barely conscious passenger on a stretcher via ambulance to a nearby hospital. Alexander informed the crew that the medical emergency they had just witnessed was a biohazard and the plane must be professionally sterilized. The crew called in biohazard professionals, Alexander cleaned himself up and took a seat.
After that, he knows little of the outcome. Due to medical privacy rules, known as HIPAA, the airline was unable to share with Alexander the passenger’s fate.
“In the end, I don’t’ really know what happened, but I’d like to find out someday,” he said.
What Alexander said he will never forget took place after the plane resumed its course to Riyadh.
“I thanked the Lufthansa crew and they let me use the first class bathroom to clean up the blood all over me,” he said, “but after that, what was really notable was the level of appreciation. I was approached by four or five Saudi passengers, who thanked me profusely for helping their countryman.
“I didn’t expect that extended gratitude, that level of recognition. My new job here at OPM-SANG is to help foster relations between the U.S. and the Saudi National Guard. And even before I landed in Saudi, people were aware of what happened and the effect has begun. This situation improved relations before I set foot in country.”
Alexander received a coin and was formally recognized by OPM-SANG program manager Brig. Gen. Paul Laughlin as the command’s NCO of the month. He has also been nominated for a Department of the Army award.