Flight doctor saves life on commercial plane

  • Published
  • By Capt. Jessica Martin
  • Nellis Public Affairs
"Is there a doctor on board?" the overhead system announced on a flight from Georgia to Nevada Dec. 20

For the second time in two months, Capt. Alex Keller, M.D., pushed his button to signal the flight attendant.

A woman in her 40s with a pre-existing medical condition was in need of oxygen. Captain Keller, 58th Rescue Squadron flight surgeon, rushed to help, diagnosing symptoms of dehydration and hypoxia (oxygen deprivation). The woman recovered, and the flight didn't have to divert from its course, thanks to his quick response.

Earlier in December, on a flight returning home from Texas, a very similar situation occurred with a man in his 30s. Again, Captain Keller found him to be dehydrated, with low blood pressure and hypoxia, and successfully treated him.

"They have very rudimentary medical kits on board commercial aircraft," said Captain Keller. "It was explained to me that they aren't allowed to access their equipment without a medical provider of some sort being present. However, the pilot can call down and have medical consultants available to him."

Captain Keller is a flight surgeon assigned to the 58th RQS, responsible for the caretaking of flyers and non-fliers in the 58th RQS, 66th RQS, 763rd Maintenance Squadron and their families. In addition, he provides the medical aspect of training for the pararescuemen and is on standby for in-flight emergencies on base. He's also part of a combat search and rescue element that aids in the rescue of stranded hikers and supports missions in the Global War on Terrorism overseas.

"If they ask for help on a civilian airplane, that's what I'm here for. It's not just the people in green; we're here for anyone who happens to be sitting there who needs help," said Captain Keller. "I'm just glad to have had the chance to be helpful."

Working as an emergency medical technician and firefighter while in medical school, Captain Keller was one year into his five-year general surgery residency when the Air Force recruited him. He was commissioned in May 2000 and came to Nellis in September. "I have the greatest job a doctor can have," said Captain Keller. "I get to be in helicopters and take care of patients."

Captain Keller and his CSAR team will soon relieve a group of pilots, maintainers, independent duty medical technicians, combat rescue officers, pararescuemen, and survival, evasion, recovery and escape technicians once they deploy to Balad Air Base, Iraq.

These same CROs, PJs and SERE personnel are part of the weapon system called Guardian Angel. Guardian Angel developed after the need for a more robust recovery operation was realized.

"There's more than just picking up the patient," said Lt. Col. Michael Slojkowski, 58th RQS commander. "There's also a need to prepare and a need to train the survivor beforehand." The PJs retrieve the patients, the CROs provide oversight and direction, and the SERE technicians advise on the potential behavior of the patient, given the rescue situation.

To ensure that these parts move like a well-oiled machine when time is of the essence, these experts train, work and deploy together on a regular basis. And the flight surgeons, like Captain Keller, join the weapon system in providing medical care as needed, making them every patient's "guardian angel."