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May 26, 2017

She's only been a nurse for 9 months, but she just saved a life at 35,000 feet

Daily Briefing

    Editor's note: This popular story from the Daily Briefing's archives was republished on May 31, 2019.

    Courtney Donlon has only had her nursing license for nine months, but she put her education to good use aboard a JetBlue flight on Monday when she saved a woman's life, Cheryl Makin reports for USA Today.

    Infographic: The 4 foundational cracks that are undermining your nurses’ resilience

    Donlon, who graduated in 2016 from Caldwell University's nursing program, works in the respiratory care unit at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital. She comes from a family of nurses, with both her mother and older sister employed as nurses by the same hospital and her younger sister currently enrolled in nursing school, Makin reports.

    Quick action

    Donlon was sleeping aboard a flight back from a weeklong vacation in Las Vegas when she was awakened by a mid-flight announcement: A female passenger was in distress, and the crew needed to know if there was a medical professional on board.

    Donlon immediately stood up, identified herself as a nurse, and began assessing the woman. "I introduced myself," Donlon said. "[I] told her I was Courtney and I worked at Robert Wood Johnson and what kind of floor I worked on so she would start to trust me a little bit. I told her she was in good hands. From there, I assessed her pain."

    After speaking with the woman and assessing her symptoms, it became clear to Donlon that the woman was having a heart attack. "She had shooting pain that went up her left arm up her neck and down her shoulder blade," she said. "That's really characteristic of a myocardial infarction—a heart attack—in women."

    Donlon, who knew she had access to only limited supplies on the plane, acted quickly.  

    "For a heart attack, there is a common acronym called MONA and it stands for Morphine, Oxygen, Nitroglycerine, and Aspirin. What they had available to me [on the plane] was a small tank of oxygen with a mask, and I was pretty sure I could get aspirin from someone on the plane," she said. Donlon said she was able to obtain aspirin after asking passengers for the drug, and she had the woman chew the medication to make it act more quickly.

    Donlon then asked one of her friends—also a nurse—to watch over the woman while Donlon urged the captain to make an emergency landing. The pilot complied, landing the plane in Charleston, South Carolina, where the woman was transported to a nearby medical facility for further care.

    Donlon joined the woman on the tarmac and transferred her, with a full report, to the paramedics, before she got back on the plane.

    While the incident "was not what [she] had expected," Donlon credited her employer for her quick response to the situation. "Because of my background here at Robert Wood Johnson, I felt very confident and comfortable to step up and take control of the situation even though I'm a relatively new nurse," she said.

    But Donlon also said her family played a key role—not just in her immediate response to the woman's distress, but in her decision to become a nurse. "I have seen my mom take control before and my sister take charge in the field," she said. "If you don't step up, it's kind of a bystander thing and in my family, they have always been the ones to step up and try to give care, so I felt it was natural for me to do so" (Makin, USA Today, 5/24).

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