SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill. – Staff Sgt. Ashley Shirley was just 1 ½ hours into a commercial flight in June when she suddenly turned around and yanked the earbuds out of Capt. James Bickel’s head.
“There’s an emergency in the back of the plane,” she quickly explained to him while motioning toward a passenger who was having an allergic reaction.
Shirley and Bickel were part of a six-person team from the 375th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron who were headed to Travis Air Force Base, Calif., for a training mission, when they sprang into action to assist.
“We got to the back of the plane, and there was a guy, his back was bright red, and he was trying to pat himself out like he was on fire,” said Bickel. “We started talking to his wife, and she said, ‘I think he’s having an allergic reaction to the aloe we put on his back before the flight. He’s never used it before.’”
Mike and Katie Smith of Chico, Calif., were travelling with their 1-year-old daughter and extended family on their way home from a Florida vacation. Mike’s painful allergic symptoms began about an hour into the flight, and Katie grew concerned after he didn’t return from the bathroom.
Katie said, “I found him in the back of the plane pacing and writhing from pain and irritation and realized something more serious was going on. I felt helpless that I couldn’t help more, and I was worried.”
Bickel started treating the patient while Capt. Jason Howell, both of whom are flight nurses, began coordinating with the pilot and a flight surgeon on the ground, who were considering diverting the plane to Salt Lake City.
Howell said they were relaying back and forth as if it were a real AE mission. Unlike on an AE mission, however, the crew wasn’t equipped with their usual supplies.
“We were going off of memory and clinical knowledge,” said Bickel. “We were going through our protocols and saying, ‘Hey, we’ve got to get epinephrine and do an injection.’ But we didn’t have any of that. We started thinking, ‘What are we going to do?’ Maintaining the airway was most important, as well as [giving] the patient … antihistamines before he gets really bad.”
The most critical moment came when Mike started to have trouble breathing.
“That’s when Jason and I looked at each other and thought, ‘This may be getting bad pretty quickly.’”
Bickel and his crew yelled down the aisles for Benadryl, and luckily, found someone on board who had the medication.
Howell explained how they gave him hydrocortisone, 50 mg of Benadryl, and ice packs to put on his back, and then positioned him so he could breathe better.
By the end of the flight, Mike’s vitals had stabilized, and the allergic reaction had subsided.
Katie, grateful for the assistance, said, “What helped was seeing all these people rush up to help when they didn’t have to. They kept cool heads the whole time and kept our spirits up. Without them there, I’m sure we would have had to do an emergency landing.”
The very next day, the 375th AES crew took off for a training mission over the Pacific Ocean. Bickel said this sort of constant training helped prepare him to act in that moment.
“We were showing the public, in a live situation, this is what we do, this is how we’re going to care for your son, daughter, father, mother, brother – it doesn’t matter,” said Bickel. “We’re trained for it. There’s no way we would sit idly by and say, ‘Oh, not for me today.’ Putting the blinders up is not how we do things.”
The team of 375th AES medics who assisted Bickel and Howell included Tech. Sgt. Ieshia Pledger, Tech. Sgt. Christina May, Staff Sgt. Dustyn Lepage, and Shirley.