Woman dies aboard flight from Haiti

February 25, 2008 5:38:27 PM PST
American Airlines pronounced its staff professional and its equipment sound Monday after a swift review of a passenger's in-flight death, despite her family's claims that the crew ignored her pleas until it was too late.

The airline said the oxygen tanks and a defibrillator were working and noted that several medical professionals on Flight 896, including a doctor, tried to save passenger Carine Desir.

But Desir's friends and family were still left with questions. A cousin who had been onboard the packed plane with the dying woman said a flight attendant twice denied her requests for oxygen - an account the airline disputes.

A longtime friend said Desir, a 44-year-old nurse, had been to a doctor for an electrocardiogram just two weeks earlier and had left with a clean bill of health.

Desir, who was afraid of flying and was married with two children, had diabetes but was in generally good health, said her friend, who asked to remain anonymous because she did not want to be contacted by more members of the media. She had hypertension, which she controlled with medication, the friend said.

A pediatrician who tried to help Desir on the plane, Joel Shulkin, said through his attorney, Justin Nadeau, that he could not confirm the claim by Desir's cousin that the oxygen tanks weren't working.

Shulkin said he found out about the incident when an intercom announcement was made asking for help from medical professionals onboard. Two emergency medical technicians performed CPR on Desir, and he tried to use a defibrillator on her, but her heart rhythm was too weak, he said.

Airline spokesman Charley Wilson said Monday: "American Airlines, after investigation, has determined that oxygen was administered on the aircraft, and it was working, and the defibrillator was applied as well."

The airline said Desir was helped by two flight attendants within three minutes of her first request for oxygen.

American said three doctors, two emergency medical technicians and two nurses were on board and offered to help, although some of them may have simply observed.

Wilson also said there were 12 oxygen tanks on the plane and the crew checked them before the flight took off to make sure they were working. He said at least two tanks were used on Desir. Both tanks worked fine, claimed Wilson, who said he did not know why a second tank was used.

Desir had complained of not feeling well and being very thirsty after she ate a meal on the Friday flight home from Port-au-Prince, Haiti, according to Antonio Oliver, a cousin who was traveling with her and her brother, Joel Desir.

Oliver said a flight attendant twice denied Desir's requests for oxygen. Eventually, he said, the flight attendant, doctors and two nurses tried to administer oxygen from two portable tanks, but he said they were empty. He also said that attempts were made to revive Desir with CPR and a defibrillator.

Oliver said he then asked for the plane, with all but four of its 267 passenger seats filled, to "land right away so I can get her to a hospital," and the pilot agreed to divert to Miami, 45 minutes away. But during that time Desir collapsed and died, Oliver said.

"Her last words were, 'I cannot breathe,"' he said.

The Federal Aviation Administration requires commercial flights to carry no fewer than two oxygen dispensers. The main goal of the rule is to have oxygen available in the event of a rapid cabin decompression, but it can also be used for other emergencies. It is up to the airlines to maintain the canisters.

Flight attendants are trained not to automatically give oxygen to every passenger who requests it but instead use airline criteria to judge when it's needed, said Leslie Mayo, a spokeswoman for the union representing American's attendants. The airline did not immediately say what criteria are used.

Wilson and Shulkin said that a defibrillator was used but that the machine indicated Desir's heartbeat was too weak to activate the unit.

An automated external defibrillator delivers an electric shock to try to restore a normal heart rhythm if a particular type of irregular heart beat is detected. The machines cannot help in all cases.

The airline said three flight attendants helped Desir but "stepped back" after doctors and nurses on the flight began to help her.

"Our crew acted very admirably," Wilson said. "They did what they were trained to do, and the equipment was working."

Desir was pronounced dead by Shulkin, and the flight continued to John F. Kennedy International Airport, without stopping in Miami. The woman's body was moved to the floor of the first-class section and was covered with a blanket, Oliver said.

With Desir's body near the front bulkhead, all passengers left the plane through an exit behind the first-class section. Her body was then removed, Wilson said.

Shulkin declined to provide additional detail, saying it was out of concern for the feelings of Desir's family.

Desir died of complications from heart disease and diabetes, said Ellen Borakove, a spokeswoman for the medical examiner's office.

FAA spokeswoman Alison Duquette said the FAA's Federal Air Surgeon's office plans to discuss the incident with American Airlines officials.

American Airlines, a unit of AMR Corp., is based in Fort Worth, Texas, and is the largest domestic airline.

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Associated Press writers Richard Pyle in New York, David Koenig in Dallas and Devlin Barrett in Washington contributed to this report.


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