Dermatology heroes showcase teamwork, diversity in emergency

On a flight to Boston for a dermatology conference, Dr. Suzanne Alkul heard a commotion in the row behind her. She turned around in her seat and saw a male passenger pale, sweating and struggling to breathe. Her instinct to help kicked in immediately.

Dr. Zeena Nawas, assistant professor of dermatology at Baylor, was sitting several rows back and noticed Alkul and other Baylor residents standing up. She heard the flight attendant call for a physician over the intercom and quickly went to see what was wrong. When she arrived, she learned that the man in distress only spoke Arabic. Fortunately for him, Nawas and Alkul were uniquely positioned to provide assistance as Arabic-speakers.

“In our culture, we call an elder man ‘Uncle,’” Nawas said. “When he heard me talking in Arabic, he looked up at me with wide-open eyes, and I said, ‘I got you, Uncle.’”

The man said he was experiencing chest pain, and Nawas immediately suspected he may be having a heart attack. Dr. Muneeza Muhammad, a recently graduated Baylor dermatology resident, joined Nawas, and the team quickly jumped into action.

Nawas and Muhammad are both trained in internal medicine, as well as dermatology and led the medical care, while Alkul and her fellow residents Drs. Trissa Connors, Jennifer Martin, Tara Braun, Joan Fernandez and Talia Noorily, assisted.

The team laid the man down in the aisle and worked to stabilize him before searching the plane’s medical kits for supplies that could help with a possible heart attack. Nawas checked his vital signs and saw that he had substantially-elevated blood pressure. She gave him aspirin, nitroglycerin and oxygen, but the man was in such distress that he could not swallow his medicine. Nawas knew that calming him was critical for stabilization.

Three Baylor College of Medicine doctors helped a man who experienced a heart attack on a March 2022 flight.

Three Baylor College of Medicine doctors helped a man who experienced a heart attack on a March 2022 flight.

“I just kept talking to him to calm him down, telling him, ‘Uncle I’m with you. I won’t leave you. I just want you to relax and breathe, and we will do this together,’” Nawas said.

Muhammad let the pilot know that the man needed to be taken to a hospital, and the decision was made to make an emergency landing in Atlanta. By the time the plane landed, the man was stable. As emergency medical services took over, Nawas stayed with the man to hand-off medical care and help with translation. She was able to use his phone to call his brother and son and let the family know what had happened.

When Nawas returned to the plane, she raised a triumphant fist and exclaimed, “Go Baylor!”

The entire plane erupted into applause. The events inspired one passenger to write a short passage titled “Angels in the Air” that celebrated the doctors’ teamwork and the strength of America’s diversity, which the pilot read aloud to all the passengers.

Since that day, Nawas has kept in touch with the man’s family, and thankfully he is recovering well.

“It was a beautiful act of humanity and teamwork,” Nawas said. “Everyone on the flight had one mission, which was to ensure this man was OK. This is an example of what’s wonderful about America – our diversity and differences make us a stronger nation.”

“It’s inspiring when we can help someone in a scary situation, on a plane nonetheless, with limited resources,” Muhammad said. “I’m so proud of my fellow colleagues who responded quickly and thoughtfully, because at the end of the day medicine is a team sport and we had a great team on that flight.”

Alkul credits divine intervention with the fact that two Arabic-speaking physicians were in the right place at the right time to help.

“People may have chuckled at the fact that we are dermatologists because it wasn’t acne or a Botox emergency,” Alkul said. “But we all go through general medicine training. We all go to the same medical school. In cases like this, I thank God we’re required to take that general medicine training.”

By Molly Chiu