The drink carts had just started to roll down the aisle on United Airlines flight 670 Saturday night when Jane Palermo saw a woman shake her husband several rows in front of her.
He wasn’t waking up, Palermo noticed. The wife shook him again. No response.
Then, the man slumped forward. His heart had stopped, and the Boston-bound flight had only just taken off from Chicago.
Palermo, a nurse at the UMass Memorial Medical Center with 35 years of experience, instinctively sprung into action. Having lost her husband when his heart stopped while he was home alone, Palermo knew help couldn’t wait.
“I didn’t really think about it. I just responded because he needed someone,” Palermo said in a Tuesday interview, describing how she and an emergency medical worker who was also on the flight came to the man’s aid. “I thought about it after.”
The paramedic and another passenger pulled the man to the front of the plane — the only place in the cabin where there was enough space to care for him. He was in dire condition when Palermo arrived at his side..
“I checked for a pulse,” said Palermo, a 61-year-old Shrewsbury resident. “There was no pulse.”
Palermo then did what she had practically perfected during her 35 years as a nurse — started CPR.
She began by doing mouth-to-mouth resuscitation while the paramedic performed chest compressions.
“He seemed to kind of respond a little bit,” Palermo said, “but not enough.”
Palermo knows the steps for treating a cardiac arrest. She’s done it many times in her years working floor duty at the hospital (she’s now a manager), but she had never performed such a procedure at 30,000 feet.
Soon, a flight attendant brought over defibrillator paddles, which shocked the man enough to restore his breathing and pulse.
With the situation under control, Palermo simply returned to her seat as the plane was diverted to Cleveland for an emergency landing. As the man was taken off the plane, he was breathing on his own, she said.
Medical personnel met the plane at the gate in Cleveland and the flight continued on to Boston after a brief delay, a United spokeswoman said. No information about the man’s condition was available, and the paramedic could not be identified — Palermo didn’t catch his name.
At UMass Medical, officials said they were proud of the response by Palermo, who they described as “a dedicated and valuable care-giver.”
“We applaud Jane for taking quick action and coming to the aid of a fellow passenger who was experiencing a life-threatening event,” Patrick Muldoon, president of UMass Memorial Medical Center, said in a statement. “Her actions 30,000 feet above the ground comes as no surprise to the people working with her on a daily basis.”
Palermo, who was returning from a vacation in the Mexican resort city Cabo San Lucas, had assisted another patient on a flight just days earlier.
On the flight down, there had been a call for medical help because someone was having an allergic reaction. While the situation was not as grave, Palermo assisted and comforted the woman as she took medication.
After she arrived in Cabo, Palermo called her daughter and ironically foreshadowed what would happen on her flight home.
“I said to my daughter, ‘At least I didn’t have to do CPR,’” she said, “not knowing I’d have to do it on the way back.”
She hopes her story inspires more people to get educated on medical response protocol — anyone’s heart could fail at any time, and someone should be there for them, she said.
“It is important to have CPR training,” she said. “You never know when you need to aid someone.”