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Off Duty, But Always On Call

For Michael Greger, M.D., answering the call of duty was a lifesaving event for a fellow passenger

Part of an online series profiling staff and friends who volunteer "Off Duty"

"Off Duty" stories normally feature HSUS staff and friends who volunteer after hours to improve the lives of animals. Here’s a story of a staff member whose "off hours" rescue involved saving the life of another person.

Dr. Michael Greger is the director of public health and animal agriculture for The HSUS. Having developed an unusual area of expertise—clinical nutrition—his work involves extensive research, research writing for medical journals, and teaching.

While returning recently from a trip to Rome, Dr. Greger had what he describes as a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Despite the early hour of the flight to Amsterdam, he was already at work on his laptop when he noticed a man collapse in the aisle about eight rows ahead.

The man fell backwards, as if in a stage faint, his eyes rolled back. Greger says it was unmistakable that something was wrong.

Instantly, the man was surrounded by panicky passengers, including the entire high school girls soccer team that the man had accompanied to Rome for a tournament: he was their coach.

A flight attendant and a nurse on the flight propped the man up, believing he was in danger of choking.

As Greger made his way up the aisle, people hearing him call out “I’m a doctor” cleared the crowded aisle to let him through.

By the time Greger arrived, the man was turning blue. Unresponsive to the desperate calls of passengers trying to get him to come to, the man stared into space and began to seize.

Greger took quick action, working with the flight attendant to get the passenger on his side in order to open his airway.

As soon as he could breathe again, Greger says, the man “opened his eyes and looked up at us.” He knew instantly who he was and where he was, and seemed unharmed except for vague embarrassment over all the fuss.

To a casual observer, the man simply woke up, Dr. Greger says. In fact, he was very close to brain damage and death due to lack of oxygen to the brain. Greger says the man didn’t realize the seriousness of what had happened.

The key to this lifesaving rescue was in opening his airway to let him breathe. “Anyone who has had first aid training knows the ‘ABCs’,” Greger says. “Airway, breathing and circulation.”

Grateful flight attendants gave Greger a goodie bag of small liquor bottles and treats for his efforts—which was confiscated, Greger said, during the security check for his connecting flight.

Still, Greger himself was grateful for the experience.

“Every medical student dreams of being in this situation!” he says. “Everywhere else you call 911, but on a plane, someone says ‘Is there a doctor’?”

“There’s very little a doctor can actually do in these situations . . . you don’t have equipment, or a stethoscope, you can’t take blood pressure,” he says. “But this was a rare circumstance where just knowing some basic first aid saved a person’s life. This is the miracle they see on TV . . . the doctor comes in and saves a life!”

View Dr. Greger's top nutrition tips and schedule of public speaking events » 

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