The Sunday Edition

For inflight medical emergencies, no female doctors need apply - Michael's essay

"It turns out that on many long haul-flights by reputable carriers, female doctors are routinely treated with disdain bordering on hostility by cabin personnel. Their stories are frightening."

A few years ago a friend, a physician, was flying back to Canada from a Caribbean vacation. 

At one point in the flight, a woman went into labour and the standard announcement asked if there was a doctor on board.

My friend identified himself as a doctor and helped the woman deliver the baby. By the time the plane touched down in New York, mother and newborn were doing fine.

It is not an uncommon fear. A medical emergency while you or a loved one is 35,000 feet over the Atlantic Ocean.

Delta council says it is hearing concerns from residents worried about an increase in noise pollution as YVR expands. (Mike Hillman/CBC)

If you are lucky, there is a physician on board. If the crisis is serious enough, the doctor, with years of training and practical experience, can jump in and save the patient. Pretty straightforward, no problem.

No problem, that is, if the doctor in question is male.

It is a different story, frighteningly different, if the doctor on the flight is a woman.

It turns out that on many long-haul flights by reputable carriers, female doctors are routinely treated with disdain bordering on hostility by cabin personnel. Their stories are frightening. Highly-trained physicians whose offers of help were rejected because the flight attendants refused to believe that women could be doctors.

Dr. Tamika Cross is an American OB/GYN and chief resident at her hospital. She was aboard a Delta Air Lines flight when a woman began screaming that her husband was unresponsive.

The call went out for a physician on board. When Dr. Cross put up her hand, the flight attendant, a woman, told her: "Oh no, sweetie, put your hand down; we're looking for actual physicians."

When Dr. Cross said she was a doctor, the flight attendant said: "Oh wow, you're an actual physician. Let me see your credentials?"

Now, Dr. Cross happens to be a young black woman. Was it misogyny or old-fashioned racism that prompted the flight attendant to respond the way she did?

You have to wonder what era these airlines are functioning in.- Michael Enright

Delta Air Lines seems to be particularly obtuse when it comes to female physicians on its planes.

Family physician Dr. Ashley Denmark was on a Delta flight when the attendant asked for a doctor. Dr. Denmark, and two women who said they were nurses, responded.

The flight attendant talked to the women and told Dr. Denmark to sit down. She wasn't needed. She said she is used to this kind of treatment. "I still get side-eye glances when I introduce myself as Dr. Denmark. Commonly I am mistaken for an assistant, a janitor, a secretary, nurse or a student."

She admitted her treatment might be because of her brown skin. 

Dr. Susan Goldberg Cohen, an internist and palliative care physician, was admonished by a flight attendant for leaving her seat to help a patient "with a medical emergency in progress." 

Dr. Trupti Shah, an emergency room physician, was on an Egyptair flight  to New York when a female passenger suddenly had trouble breathing.

Dr. Shah introduced herself as an emergency room physician and was told by the male flight attendant to return to her seat.

You have to wonder what era these airlines are functioning in. It was a very long time ago, when female doctors were a rarity.

More than 70 per cent of obstetricians and gynaecologists in the United States are female. Almost one half of all medical students are female. Overall, 33 per cent of American doctors are women.

I wasn't able to learn if any similar incidents had occurred on Canadian air carriers. But I think back to my friend on the flight from the Caribbean.

Had he been a woman, would the flight attendants have allowed her to deliver the baby?

Click the button above to hear Michael's essay. 


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.