President Commends Nursing Grad for Airplane Rescue
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President Commends Nursing Grad for Airplane Rescue

Supplying oxygen to patients is standard operating procedure for Mary Cunningham ’12. But, supplying oxygen to people while stuck in an airplane thousands of feet in the air while the rest of the passengers watch is a little out of the ordinary. 

This past spring, Cunningham, who was flying home to Connecticut from Florida, was called to administer emergency medical assistance to passengers when they began to experience symptoms of hypoxia. Due to the growing number of people affected, the plane eventually made an emergency landing. 

“That was a crazy 48 hours of my life – unlike anything else I’ve ever been through,” said Cunningham, who is an inpatient general medicine nurse at Yale-New Haven Hospital. Needless to say, the help she provided and her take-charge attitude caught the attention of the media and recently culminated with a letter of recognition from President Obama. Cunningham said the thanks she recieved was welcome, though any nurse would have done the same in that situation. 

Cunningham said this type of situation is always in the back of any medical professional’s mind. “You never know when you’ll be off duty and asked to intervene,” she explained. 

Fortunately, Cunningham was more than prepared for the emergency. At the time, she was working in the ER at Yale-New Haven Hospital, so she was used to making split-second decisions to solve medical issues. 

During the plane’s voyage home, flight attendants asked passengers if there were any medical professionals on the plane. After Cunningham volunteered, she was brought to a woman who was feeling faint and appeared lethargic and cyanotic. After assessing her, Cunningham administered oxygen and then returned to her seat after the passenger’s symptoms improved. 

Almost as soon as Cunningham returned to her seat, however, she was called back. “I thought I was being called back to help the original passenger, but actually a passenger seated directly behind the first passenger I had assisted became unresponsive. That’s when I became alarmed.” 

‌Realizing that this wasn’t an isolated incident and that several passengers required medical attention, Cunningham told the flight attendants to make sure the pilots were wearing their oxygen masks, and suggested they make an emergency landing. 

“Of course, the worst case scenario always goes through your head, but thankfully the crew was able to land our plane within 20 minutes,” Cunningham said. All told, 17 people received treatment, including Cunningham, who experienced lightheadedness and shortness of breath. Once they landed, medical responders evaluated passengers and the Federal Aviation Administration has been examining the incident. 

Cunningham’s actions were immediately recognized and reported on by both local and national media outlets including interviews with Good Morning America and an online article in People Magazine. The letter and signed photograph from President Obama that she recently recieved was a surprising but appreciated conclusion to her experience. 

Cunningham, who is pursuing her master’s in nursing at Yale University, said that she is grateful for the recognition, but helping people is something she considers to be simply part of her vocation. She knew she wanted to be a nurse at age 16. “I felt bad that I got all of this attention and recognition, when, in reality nurses are providing these interventions for patients everyday. But it was cool to be in the right place at the right time and be able to help out.”


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Last modified: Thu, 15 Oct 2015 09:37:50 EDT

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