Doctor describes delivering baby on KLM flight

Canadian family medicine resident Erin Sullivan helped a woman give birth on board a KLM flight before it made an emergency landing in Yellowknife earlier this month.

Erin Sullivan tells CBC about in-flight medical emergency en route to Calgary

A KLM flight made an emergency landing in Yellowknife Nov. 14 after a woman went into labour on board. (Robyn Burns/CBC)

Canadian family medicine resident Erin Sullivan credits her time as a Northern nurse for helping her deliver a baby on board a KLM flight before it made an emergency landing in Yellowknife earlier this month.

The KLM Airbus 330 was on its way from Amsterdam to Calgary on Nov. 14 when flight attendants made an announcement asking if there were medical personnel on board, Sullivan said.

Sullivan is a former emergency and critical care nurse who recently graduated from medical school in Ireland.

She answered the call and found a woman in distress in one of the airplane's washrooms. The woman, who was in labour, spoke no English.

"I politely asked the flight attendants to clear out business class as fast as they could, and got her positioned between the last two rows, because that was the widest area we had," she said. "Thank goodness for the extra leg room in those sections."

She was joined by a number of nurses who also happened to be on board the flight, but she was the only physician. 

By the time she opened up the on-board medical kit and put on one of the two pairs of sterile gloves included, "Delivery was imminent," she says.

She describes the obstetric supplies in the medical kit as "scanty" and consisting of two sets of sutures, one pair of scissors, and one umbilical cord clamp.

"You know when they go around with the moist towelettes in the beginning? I had a couple of packs of those ready in case she started bleeding," she says. "But other than that I had nothing."

To Sullivan's relief, the woman gave birth without complications. She delivered a vigorous, healthy, baby boy who appeared to be full-term.

However they couldn't clamp the umbilical cord properly to cut it, because that requires two clamps, until one of the nurses had an idea.

"She said, 'Wait, I know,' and she grabs her purse and she's fumbling through it and she pulls out one of those plastic clasps you use to reseal potato chip bags with, and I'm like 'Perfect!'" says Sullivan.

She credits her Northern nursing experience for helping her make do with what was available.

"Up north we had to do a lot of MacGyver-ing when we ran out of supplies and things like that," she said.

When the plane landed in Yellowknife, the mother and child were taken by ambulance to Stanton Territorial Hospital while the remaining passengers stayed on board. The flight then continued on to Calgary after a short delay. 

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