Newborn Delivered at 35,000 Feet: A Doctor’s Perspective

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SOMEWHERE OVER HOBOKEN, NJ – It’s amazing how there is always a doctor around when you need one.  Hardly 200 miles into my flight out of Albany last Thursday, a young woman in 3B could not wait any longer to find one.  “Is there a doctor on board?!” she shouted, interrobang and all.  Casually, I did my best to ignore the anxious din roar through the cabin, tending to the Angry Birds on my Kindle Fire.  “PLEASE SOMEBODY HELP!  SHE’S HAVING A BABY!!” they kept calling out.  Dear GodHopelessly, the passengers and crew fumbled around with the imminent delivery, trying to make way for an extra passenger to board the flight.

“Ding… Is there someone available to deliver a baby?”

“I’m coming, I’m coming!” I finally surrendered after seeing that nobody else knew what they were doing.   “Quick!  Give me some vodka!” I demanded of the wide-eyed flight attendant as I barreled down the narrow corridor.  In seconds, she had procured two vials and handed them to me.

I downed the first bottle.  It would have been better with some juice, to be honest.  The second, I showered over my hands like they do in the movies.  My patient, an extremely fertile, Caucasian 20-something who had apparently convinced the TSA she was safe to fly at 41 weeks, was tachycardic, diaphoretic, and red from head to toe in her reclining pleather armchair.  A man behind me tapped my left shoulder and asked, “Are you a doctor?”

No, but I stayed in a Holiday Inn Express last night.  I told him of course I was.  Confessing the truth, “a radiologist,” was simply not an option here.  Without giving the gentleman a moment to interrogate me further, I mobilized my army of equally inexperienced bystanders on board.  Imagining the mess this poor girl would make, I articulated a list of the things I would need.  Water.  Towels.  Scissors.  Garbage bag.

I started encouraging the young woman to use breathing exercises I learned from having watched 16 and Pregnant.  I nearly syncopized from the hyperventilation with her.  Then the rest happened all too quickly.

Her Hello Kitty sweatpants were cut off by the flight attendant using the on-board safety scissors while a plastic basin was placed amid the turbulence in seat 3A and between all the grunting and panting on my part and the whooshing and rocking and nasty matted down blonde highlights that belonged to this soon-to-be mom a head finally poked out and oh my god it was swiftly followed by a shoulder and another shoulder when the flight attendant’s blue and bloodless face fell flat to the floor out of disbelief or was it fear, but no other doctors were available for her so I told 4C to fan her with his tattered Red Sox cap and then I remembered how slippery newborns were but there was at least a towel and that damn vomit-colored basin to catch the thing in.

Clamp, clamp went two binder clips that had previously belonged on some document of some businessman’s.  The safety scissors which had fallen beneath the second row were snatched up and used to cut the violet lifeline.  I handed the crying glob of a child to mom as she smiled back at me, and thank God someone reminded me to deliver the placenta.

At this point, the on-call medical personnel at some military installation out in Fort something-or-other responded to our captain’s MAYDAY hail and helped us until we emergently landed at Dulles, only about 3 hours away from our destination in Atlanta.

All passengers were eventually compensated for the diverted landing in the form of frequent flyer miles and meal vouchers.  “Thank you for flying Southwest Airlines!”  The ground-based personnel later asked me if I would like to be interviewed by news reporters seeing as this was an incredible story and all, but having thought JESUS I nearly KILLED this woman, I respectfully declined.

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  • Show Comments

  • Avatar
    Patrick Ferry

    Year 2000 or so I was a second year med student on a flight from Atlanta to who knows where. Little elderly lady next to me spots me reading JAMA right about cruising altitude. “Oh you’re a doctor” or some such she declares in my direction. “A medical student” I replied. Big mistake. What followed was the most comprehensive discussion of bowel dysfunction and abnormal scatting I have ever had. Ever. God help me,
    Trapped like an animal at 35000 feet with nothing to offer other than a disturbed ear. I learned three things that day. One, the amazing diversity stools come in (soft, hard, pellets, missiles, puddles). Two, no medical literature on the airplane, ever again. Stick to the SkyMall as Garden Yetis make better traveling companions at 35K than irregular seniors. Three, some people seriously pay attention to their poop, dutifully watching it and recording data on their dookie like their life depends on it to a degree that anyone else would consider neurotic. Ugg. Valuable lessons learned.

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    Sophie Stokes

    “Thank God someone reminded me to deliver the placenta…”

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    Christina Garnero

    Many stories as an l&d nurse! You guys just got a taste of my everyday life lol.

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    Nicole Manning

    Omg… Do not fly when you are 41 weeks! Duh!!!

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    Amy Middlemas Osborne

    Nicole Manning

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    Lora Ann Cullipher

    They all come out looking like aliens.

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    Lynne Holder


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    Mike Wynn

    I delivered a baby in a strip club parking lot in Arlington, TX at 2am. First week on the job. News story is still on YouTube.

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    Toni Holloman Tubb

    I delivered many in my years as an Emergency Medicine physician in a Level I trauma center. Back when you could drive right up to the back door I delivered a few in cars. The one I will always remember was one day when I took the radio call and the medic told me about the 40yr woman having intermittent severe abdominal pain. It began again and he examined her and realized she was having contractions and in active labor and crowning. We got ready for a delivery with Peds on the way. She delivered a 5 and half lb full term appearing girl quickly after arriving and began to beg us not to tell her boyfriend – who had Arrived by then and wanted to see her. When we asked her why she hadn’t realized she was pregnant she said she thought she wen through “the change” and that she has gas when the baby moved. She was a tiny slender woman and thought she had gained weight when she developed a large stomach- though not very large. She could have worn loose clothes and easily hidden her full term pregnancy. She had a teenager so had been pregnant before.

    Not as good as an airplane though…not the cars with sweat pants around their ankles..

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    Katie Doherty

    I was just in basic training too- not even a medic:) I had the best story in the whole class that’s for sure! They named him Nathan. I’m due with our fourth child in a month and have fast labors, am hoping that wasn’t a preview!

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    Christopher Jodoin

    That’s so awesome! It took me a few years as a medic to deliver a baby. It’s a pretty cool thing. She didn’t name him after me tho

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    Katie Doherty

    I was training to be an EMT, doing clinicals at an ER in Lansing MI in 1998. I was outside waiting for an ambulance in March, a car pulled in instead with a lady in the front passenger seat clearly about to deliver. Yelled for a gurney but not fast enough- I had already had one of my own so I knew when she started pushing- time was up. Got her pants off and foot on the dashboard, caught the baby just in time. We had reviewed OB in class the night before so when they handed me clamps, scissors and a bulb syringe I knew what to do. Healthy little boy passed on to a warm incubator and a relieved mom taken up to L&D by the docs who finally showed up a few minutes too late:)

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    Christi Hobbs

    Oh, and I love the 15 yo who had never had sex before that delivered in the ER after she came in with back pain. Nothing like trying to deliver a baby (we didn’t have time to get her up to OB) while the pts mom was beating the hell out of the girls boyfriend, who just happened to come with them. That was a fun day. (eye roll)

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    Christi Hobbs

    Well, I guess in his defense, he did literally just leave the room lol. He wasn’t the best Dr around anyways. I always cringed when I saw his name in the board.

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    Grace del Real

    How do you NOT believe the nurse when they tell you the pt delivered? Sheesh!

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    Christi Hobbs

    I’ve delivered a baby in the jail (where I worked for a bit) and at the hospital after the doctor said it would be a while longer to the delivering mom. As soon as he left the room, baby popped out and he hung up on me when I called him to tell him she was delivered and stable and waiting with mom for him to come back and check them out. The second call he ignored. Third call he said he didn’t quite believe me but came anyways. To no ones surprise, he never did apologize to me for being an ass. Not that I even wanted one. But, no, that still doesn’t beat an airplane. Guess I need to fly more often.

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