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A Pharmacist at 36,000 Feet

Harold E. Cohen, RPh
Editor-in-Chief



11/20/2012

US Pharm. 2012;37(11):3.

A couple of months ago I was flying home from a pharmacy conference in Denver when approximately 2 hours into the trip a flight attendant came over the PA system asking if there was a doctor or paramedic onboard. As a savvy business traveler, I knew this likely meant there was a sick passenger who needed assistance. Having been an EMT attached to a volunteer ambulance squad much earlier in my pharmacy career, I instinctively reached up to press my call button to alert the crew that I might be able to help. But then I hesitated, as I hadn’t been certified as an EMT for several years and was concerned that, depending on the severity of the patient’s condition, I could possibly do more harm than good. I decided to wait and see if anyone else would respond. As luck would have it, I heard the familiar tone of two call buttons, so I knew the sick passenger would be in good hands.  

And yet, I continued to wonder if I could still be of some help regarding any medication the patient might be taking. I once again reached for the overhead call button, this time a bit more timidly, and pressed it. When the flight attendant arrived, I explained that I was a pharmacist and could perhaps be of some assistance. A few seconds later she came back and handed me a piece of paper with the word Suboxone written on it. She said the patient told her this was the drug he was taking. It was then I informed the flight attendant that maybe I actually could be of some help. As most pharmacists are aware, drug addicts use this drug to help wean themselves off their addiction to potent opioids like morphine, codeine, and heroin. After hearing what the symptoms were, I knew they were in line with the drug’s side effects. I suggested that the problem might have been an overdose or some misuse of the drug. That information was passed along to the paramedic and doctor treating the sick passenger.

I was seated only a few rows away from where they were working on the patient. A male, he appeared to be a 20 something and was looking very pale. I noticed they had an IV line in his arm, which I assumed was a saline drip to help with dehydration because I was told he had been throwing up for quite a while; he also had oxygen flowing through a cannula in his nose. The flight attendant told me the young man was scheduled to change planes in Newark for a trip to Ireland, where he was destined to check into a rehab facility. While I didn’t administer any first aid on this trip, I felt pretty pleased that my pharmaceutical knowledge had come in handy and I could add something to the patient’s comfort.

Interestingly, this was not the first time I’d been called from my seat to help a sick passenger. Some time ago I was on a cross-country trip from Los Angeles, and an elderly, somewhat disoriented woman was experiencing moderate chest pains. On that flight there were no other medical personnel available to help so I volunteered. It turned out she carried nitroglycerin tablets in her purse. I asked her if she had taken any, and she said no. Once she put one under her tongue, her chest pain subsided and she was able to comfortably make it to the end of the flight.  

These experiences have reinforced in me the awareness that a pharmacist is not only a pharmacist behind the prescription counter; a pharmacist is a pharmacist 24 hours a day. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I have been asked questions in social settings about someone’s medication. This happens at one time or another to nearly every pharmacist I’ve known. Prescription drugs are such a vital part of our well-being that patients oftentimes can’t help asking questions about what they are taking once they learn you are pharmacist. A pharmacist’s knowledge extends far beyond the dispensing of prescription medications. We are walking encyclopedias of drug information. I was reminded of that once again at 36,000 feet on this most recent trip from Denver. And you know what? It felt pretty darn good.

To comment on this article, contact editor@uspharmacist.com.


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