Palo Alto fire chief praised for helping ill passenger


At Monday's meeting, City Manager James Keene read to council members a letter from American Airlines that thanked the chief for helping a woman suffering from a medical emergency while mid-flight on Aug. 18.

The modest chief, who did not attend Monday's meeting, said later this week, "Any of the firefighters here would have done the same thing and stepped up."

Nickel claimed firefighters are "never truly off-duty" and he experienced this firsthand while on a Sunday flight back from Chicago where he had attended the International Association of Fire Chiefs conference.

A few hours into the flight he said a call went out for a doctor or nurse onboard. When there was no response flight attendants asked if anyone had any medical background or training to assist with a medical emergency.

"That's when I IDed myself and said I'm the fire chief of the city of Palo Alto," he said.

According to the chief, a flight attended grabbed his arm and said "Please, please come up front."

That's where he found a woman in her 50s with an abdominal issue. Nickel did not want to divulge more details about her ailment, citing patient privacy.

With 13 years of paramedic training, Nickel said he started to assess the woman and determined she needed to be at a hospital and that the well-stocked medical supply bag, filled with a defibrillator, IV tubing and other medications, would be of no use to her.

The flight attendants were relaying messages from Nickel to the pilot about the situation, he said. Nickel asked if there was a doctor he could speak with via radio, but the pilot said that would not be possible.

The pilot himself then asked Nickel if he thought the crew should divert to Salt Lake City which was only 25 minutes away, or wait the two hours until arriving to San Francisco.

"I said this lady has no business on a plane up here," Nickel said and he decided to recommend making a medical emergency stop.

The pilot then made an announcement to the plane about the modified travel plans, and once they landed in Salt Lake City the woman was whisked away by responding medical crews.

Nickel was able to give his business card to the woman's husband, who later emailed the chief to thank him for his help.

When Nickel returned to his seat he dreaded the reaction of his fellow travelers whose travel plans had been delayed. But he said all the passengers were clapping, which he described as "kind of uncomfortable but it was cool."

A few days after returning to the Bay Area, Nickel received a letter written by the American Airlines medical director.

Accompanying the letter was a travel voucher for another flight, he said.

Nickel said Keene wanted to read the letter at this week's meeting and he gave him the OK. Nickel gave the flight voucher back to the council, whom he felt deserved to use the free trip because they had footed the travel expenses for the conference.

Nickel said the husband of the ill woman had emailed him after the ordeal and said that the couple had been planning to vacation in the Bay Area before their plans were derailed. His wife spent two days in the Salt Lake City hospital before they returned to the Chicago area.

The husband said the woman had fully recovered.

Nickel said he invited the couple to stop by the Palo Alto fire department for a visit if they were able to make up the trip to the Bay Area.

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