Irish American Physician Assistant returning from burying her father's ashes in Ireland, encouraging people to learn first-aid and CPR

It was June when Beth Higgins and her family were returning to New York after a sad trip – delivering the ashes of her deceased father Eddie back home to Caltra, Co. Galway.

Higgins, a Physician Assistant in Neurosurgery who works at NewYork-Presbyterian Weill Cornell Medicine in Manhattan, left a life behind in Ireland but saved one on the flight, as a fellow passenger was in cardiac arrest and for a short while was without a pulse.

When flight crew asked if anyone on board was a doctor and no one stepped up Higgins, who spent part of her college years studying in Ireland, made herself known and was called into action that minutes later managed to save the man’s life.

Higgins told her incredible story in a blog post on the Weill Cornell Brain and Spine Center’s website.  Her employers named her Employee of the Month for July for her quick-thinking actions on board.

Higgins wrote, “I typically spend my days assisting neurosurgeons in the operating room and taking care of our inpatients before and after surgery. I have been trained in CPR, having taken the hospital’s provided and required Basic Life Support (BLS) and Advanced Cardiac Life Support (ACLS) courses, but it is not something that I have often been called on to do. In fact, I had only ever used it once before, until I was recently called into action — of all places, on an airplane flight.

“I was on a plane returning to New York from Ireland, where my family had taken my father’s ashes home to bury. As you might imagine we were feeling reflective, thinking about life, death, and what really matters in life. We were all pretty tired, and eager to get back to the states.”

The man fell ill about an hour from landing.  As Higgins writes, “I saw the crowd in the aisle about 15 rows in front of mine. I went up and excused myself to some of the people in the crowd so I could get closer, and a flight attendant asked was I a doctor. I said no, I am a neurosurgery PA, and she gestured me forward. I’m not even sure if she understood what a neurosurgery PA was.

“A man was lying in the aisle with one person pushing on his chest and someone else at his neck trying to find a pulse. I told them to stop compressions while I checked for a pulse – there was none, so I started compressions. I shouted for anyone else who was able to assist in CPR to step up.

“A nearby passenger was willing to give mouth-to-mouth - surprising since many people aren’t willing to do that these days, which is why there’s been a new effort to teach hands-only CPR. After I did 30 compressions he delivered two breaths.

“We got into a cycle of three people rotating through compressions – doing compressions is physically taxing, and I wanted to be sure we maintained our ability to keep going – and I also rotated with the man providing breaths. Two other passengers volunteered to help with compressions, but they were ineffective so I removed them from the line-up to maintain high-quality CPR.

“In my head, I kept hearing the voice of my amazing CPR instructor at NewYork-Presbyterian, Larry Wheeler (“allow for chest recoil,” “ensure chest rise,” and my favorite, “he’s dead, you can’t hurt him!”).

A flight attendant accessed the plane’s AED, an automated external defibrillator.  Higgins writes, “A very pregnant nurse [ we now know to be named Michelle Healey, also from New York ] stepped up to ask if she could help. I asked her to manage the AED (she was fabulous monitoring rhythm), and I told the crew that we needed to land as soon as possible.

“We gave three shocks with the AED during ongoing CPR, which got us to ROSC (return of spontaneous circulation). Amazingly, the patient resumed consciousness and was able to say where in Ireland he was from. He then went into vfib (ventricular fibrillation, an erratic heart rhythm that doesn’t pump blood) and we resumed CPR. We delivered three or four more AED shocks, and we got to ROSC again. The patient was speaking, answering questions, and following commands.

“We all braced in position for landing, with the patient still on the aisle floor and us gathered around him. EMS was waiting for us on the ground and whisked him off to the hospital, still awake, still speaking, still responding to instructions.”

After landing, the enormity of what Higgins and the others on board were able to achieve sunk in – they literally brought a man back from the dead.

“My hastily assembled crew of volunteer life-savers sat back in disbelief (and pain — I was drenched in sweat, had rug burns on my knees, and my abs were killing me!), amazed that we had somehow come together in the narrow confines of an airplane aisle to bring a man back to life,” she wrote.

“I don’t know much about the man whose life we saved, but I’m sure he knows what a remarkable experience we all went through together. I have since learned that he survived his ordeal and was discharged from the hospital he was taken to. I hope he is home with his family now, enjoying his second chance at life. The thought of that makes me so happy -- it’s worth the rug-burned knees and sore abs.”

Higgins shared her story in the hopes that it would encourage people to become trained in CPR. 

“When the heart stops pumping, brain damage starts in minutes. In just the short time it took to retrieve the AED and get it started, and in the period of vfib between shocks, our little team of volunteers kept a man’s brain alive and gave him a chance of living out his life,” she wrote.

“Anyone who is ever in a position to help – and it can happen anytime, anywhere – has an amazing opportunity to save a life. Hands-only CPR allows anyone to participate without having to do mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.”