Respiratory therapist has 'serious concerns' with WestJet's response to death on flight

A respiratory therapist who performed CPR on an elderly man who died on a WestJet flight last week is concerned with how the medical emergency was handled.

Brittany Lardner assisted with a medical emergency on a flight from Hawaii to Calgary

A respiratory therapist is concerned with how a medical emergency was handled on a WestJet flight. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)

A respiratory therapist who performed CPR on an elderly man who died on a WestJet flight last week is concerned with how the medical emergency was handled. 

"It's something they need to learn from," Brittany Lardner told CBC News. "They need to take this very seriously because it could be a matter of life or death."

Lardner works at the Foothills hospital in Calgary. She was about halfway through a red-eye flight from Honolulu to Calgary on March 7 when flight attendants asked if a doctor or nurse was on board.

She identified herself to an attendant and told them she could help with the situation if it involved CPR or a lung issue.

She followed the flight attendant to the front of the plane, where a nurse had begun CPR on a man who was unconscious on the floor.

"We said we needed an AED (automated external defibrillator) and a mask or bag so we could give rescue breaths," Lardner said.

"It was quite some time — I would say probably in the range of 12 to 15 minutes — before they provided us with an AED. It was a lot of confusion. I think all of the crew, they were very well-meaning, they realized the issues and how serious the situation was, but nobody could find one."

Lardner said she operated the AED and helped provide CPR, with the help of two nurses and a couple of passengers. 

WestJet staff took more than 10 minutes to find a defibrillator during the medical emergency, the respiratory therapist said. (Petar Valkov/CBC)

She said the device, which analyzes the heart's rhythm through its pads, wasn't able to find a shockable rhythm — possibly either due to the man's condition, or due to interference from turbulence on the plane.

Lardner said after about 45 minutes, the man was still unresponsive and had no pulse. A physician, who had been offering assistance, said it was time to declare the time of death. 

"We had to move the deceased man into a seat and attempt to strap him in as best we could for landing," Lardner said.

She said passengers flew the rest of the flight, approximately 1½ to two hours, next to the deceased man. 

'Lack of debriefing or grief counselling'

"I have very serious concerns about the confusion and inability to find an AED. It's something they need to improve on. Also the lack of debriefing or grief counselling of any kind for the passengers who were seated around the deceased and had to witness the event," Lardner said.

Lardner said that she's not sure the delay in finding the AED would have made any difference to the outcome, as the man was old and appeared to have pre-existing medical conditions. She said she was shocked he was even allowed to fly in the first place.

"I noticed him boarding. He was quite visibly in medical distress. He looked very unwell. I believe he was already talking to a medic, but a flight attendant later told me he was cleared to travel," she said. 

She added that while she appreciates that WestJet stocks AEDs on their planes — the devices are not required by Transport Canada — she said the benefit is nullified if staff can't quickly locate or use the device. 

WestJet staff took down Lardner's information and said they would contact her after the flight, but she said she hadn't heard from anyone at the company until she wrote them a letter a few days later. 

"There were many people in tears at the baggage carousel in Calgary and no support was offered at that time," she said. "I think even the opportunity for people to talk through what they had experienced — and at that time voice what their issues were and what they had experienced — I think would have been very helpful."

WestJet responded to Lardner's email, thanking her for her help with the medical situation and offering her a $250 credit toward a flight sometime in the next year. They said that they received her concerns, and would forward them to the in-flight department. 

A WestJet spokesperson told CBC News in an emailed statement earlier this week that the airline was "comfortable with the way the situation was handled during this unfortunate incident."

Yearly training for flight crews

Lardner said she was happy with how her concerns had been handled, until she saw the airline's comment in a CBC article.

"I thought they were taking things more seriously. I was not at all comfortable with what I witnessed."

In an emailed statement, WestJet said "we are confident that our cabin crew members took the appropriate actions in helping this guest during this incident. As with any serious incident onboard our aircraft, we are investigating, with an emphasis on thoroughness, accuracy and integrity."

The airline said cabin crew receive yearly training to respond to medical emergencies, and receive basic first aid training every second year, which the airline pointed out exceeds the minimum requirements set forth by Transport Canada.

With files from Jennifer Lee