Retired Air Force veteran Tom McCay was on an internal flight with his wife, Maggie, in early March 2017 when he was suddenly struck down. Terrified at the sight of her ailing husband, Maggie called out for a doctor to help the unconscious man. But what happened next in this high drama was astounding. And while no one could say falling seriously ill in mid-flight is fortunate, it was certainly Tom’s lucky day in one way…
Tom is actually a retired U.S. Air Force colonel with a service record that stretches back to the Vietnam War. These days, he lives happily with Maggie, a former nurse, in Houston, Texas. But on Monday, March 6, 2017, the 70-something couple caught a Southwest Airlines flight home from Atlanta, Georgia, following a cruise vacation.
With all his years of flight time behind him, the former military pilot certainly had no fears of flying. In fact, Tom was always reassured when traveling on commercial airlines by the thought that he could be the one to assist in the case of an emergency. As he later told NBC News, “If one of the pilots passed out, then maybe I could go up and help.”
However, this was not to be that March day. On the contrary, Tom ended up being the person in need, and the help had to come from elsewhere. “Somebody passed out, but it was me,” he confessed to the cameras later that month. And it must have come as an almighty shock, for, as the retiree recalled, “everything was fine” when their journey home from Atlanta began.
Indeed, it had been a smooth ride for the McCays until the approximately one-hour Atlanta-to-Houston flight was about halfway to its destination hub. As Maggie said to NBC, “I looked over at him, and I could tell something wasn’t right. And then all of a sudden he just became unconscious.”
Reportedly, Tom had described himself as “clammy and lightheaded” shortly before losing consciousness. So when he passed out, his wife became understandably hysterical. “I went into panic mode,” she remembered. “I started yelling, ‘I need help, I need a doctor!’”
Indeed, with her extensive medical background, Maggie knew instantly that her husband needed urgent assistance. She was of course hoping that someone on board would have the necessary training and be able to help out. But she could not have expected what happened next. Maggie said, “Within seconds, the response was unbelievable.”
But not just one doctor stood up to come to her sick husband’s aid. Instead, to Maggie’s total astonishment, no fewer than 25 health professionals heeded the call. It turned out that they were all traveling back from a medical conference that they had attended in Atlanta. In fact, medics made up some 15 percent of the passengers aboard the Houston-bound service.
So while many doctors offered to assist the ailing Tom, in the end five of them focused on stabilizing the stricken man. One of their number was oral surgeon Dr. Jeffrey Aycock, who works at the University of Texas. His colleague, internal medicine professor Dr. Andrew Grant, gave his advice, too, as did Dr. David Corry from Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine. Allergists Dr. Kristin Moore from Houston Allergy and Dr. Lenora Noroski from the Texas Children’s Hospital were also on hand.
And there was certainly no shortage of second opinions available for the colonel. As Dr. Moore recounted to NBC, “I told him not to worry, he had 25 medical-center doctors surrounding him.” So the five professionals sprang into action to do their best for poor Tom. “It was amazing with all these docs how naturally everyone fell into their own specific tasks,” Dr. Corry later related.
Pretty soon, Tom was stretched out across three of the plane’s seats. The retiree was then in a position to fully open his airway and send much-needed oxygen to his brain. “I was seats behind the couple, but the wife started panicking and calling out for help,” Dr. Aycock told NBC News. “It became obvious that it was an emergency, and I rushed to jump right in, squeezing through the tight seats to get to the patient.”
Although Maggie was terrified, the doctors knew just what to do. “He had a strong but very, very low pulse rate, which we were worried about,” Dr. Aycock recalled. “We knew, however, that he was going to be okay from his stable blood-pressure counts.”
Dr. Corry was of the opinion that Tom’s trouble had started after the colonel had mixed alcohol and medication. Conversely, however, Dr. Aycock believed the patient had not had enough to drink and put the episode down to dehydration. No matter what it was that originally caused the in-flight health scare, though, the doctors on board did not hesitate to assist the poorly passenger.
As Dr. Grant remembered to NBC, “Dr. Aycock jumped right in, and we administered the oxygen source.” But the University of Texas professor also sang the praises of the flight stewards. He said, “The Southwest Airlines crew were impressive in their response. They left the medical bag for us, and a male staff was constantly updating the pilot and discussing if an emergency landing was required.”
Fortunately, such a drama proved not to be necessary. After about ten minutes, Tom’s condition was stabilized. The patient then came to and was given an aspirin by one of the doctors. Tom was able to tell NBC what happened next. He said, “As they said my pulse was coming up, I started to feel better. And I opened my eyes and saw all these people looking down at me.”
Subsequently, a shaken Tom reassured Maggie that he was feeling better. And before too long, it was time for the plane to land. Then, when the McCays disembarked from the flight, more medical assistance was waiting for Tom at the airport. However, the decorated veteran was made of strong stuff and refused immediate hospital treatment. Nonetheless, Tom later agreed to a checkup at the Debakey Clinic in Houston.
But while Tom resolved to monitor his condition, he said he saw little need for further medical assistance. Nevertheless, the colonel was willing to follow any orders from the Debakey Clinic following the results of tests the center ran on him. Tom told NBC News, “I hope we can figure this out so there is no problem. And manage whatever we need to do.”
After news of the mid-air incident broke, Southwest Airlines issued a press release thanking the medically trained travelers for their assistance. The statement read, “We are beyond grateful for the aid provided by several medical professionals to stabilize the passenger.” But surely no one is more appreciative for the doctors’ assistance than Tom and Maggie.
Indeed, Tom himself was happy to praise the other passengers on his fateful flight. “It was our lucky day,” he told NBC News. “It ended up okay, and thanks to all those people that helped us.” Maggie will never forget the care shown to her husband that day, either. “I just feel like God was hovering over the plane with the amount of doctors there,” she exclaimed. “We can never repay them.”
Maggie continued, “There was somebody watching over that plane that day, and I am so grateful for the crew, the doctors and all the passengers. The passengers were all reaching out. It was just unbelievable and really restores your faith in mankind.”