Sep. 24—Vel Westbrook didn't give it much thought when the older woman asked if she would sit next to her on the flight from Houston to Kansas City.
Westbrook, a nursing skills lab supervisor at North Central Missouri College in Trenton, had planned to get a spot closer to her two colleagues, who were seated at the back of the plane. Instead, she stayed with the woman and her husband.
"Out of the goodness of my heart, I couldn't tell her no," Westbrook said.
The open seating arrangement on this Southwest Airlines flight led to something more than a kind gesture for a complete stranger. It enabled a fateful encounter of life-or-death significance.
Westbrook recalls the woman poking her husband as the plane began its final descent into Kansas City International Airport. "She turned and, kind of elbowing him, said 'Don't be snoring out loud. You're embarrassing me on the plane.' And then she turned back to me and said, 'I can't get him awake. I can't get him awake.'"
Westbrook leaned over and couldn't get a pulse on the woman's husband. The nurse spun around in her seat and began chest compressions and yelled over the roar of the engines for oxygen and an automated external defibrillator, or AED. The airline called for a doctor over the intercom, but there were none on board. Westbrook's two fellow instructors for NCMC, Cydney Bestgen and Sophia Swink, arrived from the back of the plane to assist as the man was moved to the floor for CPR.
"It kind of took a few seconds to wrap your head around what was going on," Bestgen said. "We're used to an inpatient setting where we have all of our tools and all of our supplies within arm's reach. We had limited supplies, but what we knew we could do was lean on each other."
As the nurses applied oxygen and hooked up the AED, the man's pulse returned and he began to slowly revive. He was groggy but alive as the plane landed and he was led away to a waiting ambulance.
"He still didn't look good, but he was awake and talking," Swink said.
The whole episode had taken 25 minutes.
Not everyone who goes into cardiac arrest will find themselves on a plane with three nurses who were just returning from a conference on the use of mannequins and other high-tech simulations to teach life-saving techniques. For Westbrook, the close call on that Southwest Airlines plane shows the importance of taking a CPR course.
"Without someone to respond quickly, he may not have gotten a pulse back," said Westbrook, who in addition to teaching works as a fill-in nurse at two locations. "I worry about if he hadn't been where he was sitting, if he had been in the back of the plane and she thought he was just sleeping, how long would it have taken."
The three nurses have administered CPR before, but never in the cramped aisles of a plane descending through turbulence. To the medical professional, there can be something almost mechanical about it in the heat of the moment: this is where you look for a pulse, this is a sternum rub, this is how you do chest compressions.
Then it hits you.
"It's just very surreal. Very surreal," Westbrook said. "It shows how precious life is. And you never know."
The NCMC nurses know very little about the man on that plane. He was in his 60s or 70s, had children in the Kansas City area and had tickets to the Thursday night Chiefs-Chargers game later that day, Sept. 15, at Arrowhead Stadium.
It's unclear whether he ever made it to that game, but Westbrook knows she gave him a chance to see more football in the future. The actions of the three nurses created a bond that, while cloaked in anonymity, remains meaningful and enduring.
"We're public servants," Westbrook said. "I would do it 100 times over, and so would my sisters."
Greg Kozol can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @NPNowKozol.