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‘Is There a Doctor on the Plane?’ Dr. Paul DeLeeuw Explains Why Physicians Fear These Words

After many years of schooling, residencies, board certifications, and fellowships, doctors and specialists are well-equipped to assess and treat patients. Many physicians are exposed to a wide variety of medical conditions and emergency situations that require quick thinking, deductive reasoning, and immediate care. But as some doctors have learned, even providing life-saving care under extreme distress can be a thankless job – and so comes this particular tale from Dr. Paul DeLeeuw.

Dr. Paul DeLeeuw has been practicing medicine for almost 50 years, first as an acupuncturist in Italy, then as a high-level anesthesiologist in South Florida, and now as a bariatric doctor in Central Florida. The majority of his career was spent at Cedars Medical Center in Miami, where he ascended to the position of Chief of Anesthesia in 1986. He later became the Director of Anesthesia Services at Riverwalk Surgery Center in 2004 before a 2008 bicycle injury forced him to retire from anesthesia. 

During his 26 years in anesthesia, Dr. Paul DeLeeuw saved countless lives. In several situations, these lives were saved outside of surgery, when he volunteered his services as a doctor when called upon. One of the most memorable of these occurred on a flight between Miami and New York.

Along with his wife, Dr. DeLeeuw was on his way to his family’s campground in New Hampshire. The flight was turbulent and required that everyone remain in their seats. However, over Virginia, the flight attendant called for a doctor over the loudspeaker. After previously having a negative experience with such a request, Dr. DeLeeuw stayed seated at first. But a second, more urgent, call for a doctor had him on his feet.

The flight attendants frantically hurried Dr. DeLeeuw to the patient, who was lying unconscious in the aisle in the back of the plane. She was young, black, and wearing a colorful dress. Luckily, she was breathing but had very low blood pressure.

While waiting for the emergency medical kit, Dr. Paul DeLeeuw addressed the young woman’s travel companions, hoping to find out some medical history on her. But her companions spoke only Creole and were unable to communicate anything at all to Dr. DeLeeuw. Left to guess why the woman was in distress, he narrowed down the options to either low blood sugar or a history of severe bleeding. Dr. DeLeeuw started an IV on the woman and ran in fluids as quickly as he could, before requesting portable oxygen.

By this point, several other doctors and a few nurses had identified themselves and were offering their opinions on how to proceed with the patient. Dr. DeLeeuw was curious why none of them had stepped forward during the initial announcement to offer their services.

Under Dr. Paul DeLeeuw’s supervision, the patient remained unconscious but her blood pressure was improving. The co-pilot appeared at his side to determine if the plane should make an emergency landing.

“It’s up to you, doc. If you say this is a life-or-death situation, we’ll make an emergency landing,” he said.

Dr. DeLeeuw confirmed that the situation was indeed that dire. The co-pilot returned to the cockpit without a word.

A few minutes later, with no notice to the passengers, the plane took a crash dive. Everything that was loose in the cabin flew into the air – food, paper goods, and medical equipment. Less than two minutes later, they were on the ground.

Just as the plane was landing, the young patient began to wake up. Medics boarded the plane with a stretcher, at which point she was beginning to speak in broken English and explain her situation. 

She had had an abortion that very morning. She had bled a lot and was told not to fly – in fact, she was told to stay in bed for a day.

Dr. DeLeeuw was proud of his deductive reasoning and the fact that his care had saved the woman’s life. When the Captain approached him, he expected some form of thanks for his work. Instead, he got the opposite.

The Captain and crew were furious with Dr. DeLeeuw. If an airplane makes an emergency landing, an inquiry is initiated by the Civil Aeronautics Board. The inquiry requires extensive paperwork that can go on for hours or even days. Every passenger had to be rerouted and placed onto another airplane, and the delays and lost luggage were massive. All of the ire and hostility of the crew was directed at Dr. DeLeeuw for the remainder of his trip.

But as Dr. DeLeeuw’s wife pointed out, this is why doctors hesitate to stand up in emergencies. For every life saved, there are complications and inconveniences sustained by those around them who erroneously blame the physician for their newfound troubles. 

Yes, Dr. Paul DeLeeuw had saved a life in mid-air, with minimal equipment and zero information about the patient. But he had also created hours of work for exhausted airline staff. A worthy trade, but not one without consequences.