‘Doctor on the plane’ saves life at 30,000 feet


Stephen Richards, D.O.’74, R.Ph., dealt with just about every kind of health condition and crisis possible as a longtime family physician in rural Iowa. That’s why he kept his professional cool and knew exactly what to do on a recent plane flight from Washington, DC.

“I saw the stewardess racing past with an oxygen tank. I thought, ‘This probably isn’t good,’” he recalls. “Then the call came over the speaker: ‘Is there a doctor on the plane?’”

Richards responded to the call, finding a man in shock but still conscious. Another physician-passenger came to help. “He asked me what kind of doctor I am,” Richards says. “I said I’d worked in rural family practice. He said, ‘That’s a good thing, because I’m a gynecologist and I don’t know any of this.’”

They were able to stabilize the patient by getting an IV started and giving him a fluid bolus – “Delta carries very nice medical kits,” Richards says – but he was still complaining about abdominal pain. Approximately 30 minutes away from the plane’s scheduled Minneapolis destination, the flight staff asked whether the pilot could continue there or should land the plane immediately. Richards, a retired flight surgeon who paid for medical school by joining the U.S. Air Force, responded, “How about you have the guy push the throttle a little harder to get us there faster?

“We got there in 20 minutes,” he adds.

Retired from clinical practice in 2011, Richards is the medical director for Pharmacists Mutual Cos. (PMC) in Algona, IA. PMC is the nation’s largest insurance carrier for pharmacists. He also recently became chief medical officer for CoOpportunity Health, a new health insurance provider for individuals, families, small businesses and other employers in Iowa and Nebraska.

A member of the American Academy of Family Physicians Advocacy Commission, Richards had traveled to Washington, DC, to attend a commission meeting. While this was the fourth time he had responded to a medical emergency on a commercial flight, the other three had not been as “potentially serious as this one,” he says. After the plane landed, the patient and his wife, residents of Minnesota’s Twin Cities, were prepared for transport to a local hospital.

“His wife asked where I lived,” Richards says. “The patient said, ‘I just want to know how far I’ve got to go to see a good doctor.’”

Richards jokes the airline “never once asked for my physician’s identification” during the crisis, although he did receive a $150 travel voucher for his help. “That’s a pretty cheap house call at 30,000 feet,” he says.

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