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Quick thinking by pilots and crew leads to life-saving treatment by RPA stroke team

Emotional reunion after mid-air emergency

May 2018

Quick thinking by pilots and crew leads to life-saving treatment by RPA stroke team

Quick thinking by pilots and crew leads to life-saving treatment by RPA stroke team

Maree Heenan was travelling on board a Jetstar Australia flight from Honolulu to Melbourne on her 77th birthday when her friends Sally Blackaby and Debbie Dermody noticed the right side of her face was drooping and her eye was bloodshot.

Sally's training as a nurse allowed her to recognise Maree was having a major ischaemic stroke, which occurs when a blood clot blocks an artery and interrupts blood flow to the brain.

Sally and Debbie notified the cabin crew, who alerted the flight deck. Pilot Captain Peter Clements immediately diverted the plane to Sydney, where NSW Ambulance paramedics met her on the tarmac.

The specialist team from the comprehensive stroke service at RPA hospital were prepared for Maree's arrival and within 16 minutes, she was given thrombolysis, a treatment that uses "clot busting" medications to break up and dissolve blood clots that are blocking veins or arteries. Just over a quarter of an hour later, she was in an angiography suite undergoing endovascular treatment (mechanical clot retrieval).

"It all happened so quickly," Maree said. "It was a whirlpool, but I do remember someone saying 'RPA is the best hospital in Australia. We're going to get you to RPA'."

Maree has made an almost complete recovery and is now back home with her family in Tasmania.

RPA Director of Stroke Associate Professor John Worthington said a stroke of Maree's size is usually very disabling, with patients typically ending up in a nursing home.

"She arrived at hospital with a big stroke and we turned it around so she's like someone who arrived with a small stroke," he said.

This week Maree (far right), Sally (centre) and Debbie (second from right) met with Captain Clements and cabin crew Karuna Ann Tamee at Hobart Airport. Their emotional reunion was captured by the team at Channel 7's Sunrise program.

Captain Clements said the decision to divert a plane with 330 passengers on board 10 and a half hours into a flight is not something to be taken lightly, but he knew it was vital to get Maree on the ground as quickly as possible.

"I knew from my own experience that time is critical with stroke," he said.

A/Prof Worthington and Maree's neurointerventional radiologist Dr David Brunacci were also on hand at Hobart Airport to thank the Jetstar Australia team for getting Maree from 43,000 feet somewhere over the Pacific Ocean to RPA within an hour and a half.

"We know that minutes matter with stroke and the longer that you prolong the time you get to hospital, you often don't do as well," Dr Brunacci said.

RPA is one of only two sites in Sydney to offer 24/7 endovascular clot retrieval for ischaemic stroke patients.

It is a very complex and delicate procedure that requires extensive training and definitive evidence for its effectiveness was only obtained in 2015.

A/Professor John Worthington said recent clinical trials showed that in patients with large clots, who are candidates for this treatment, on average about one in three recover almost completely, being independent three months after the stroke.

Of all the neurological disorders, stroke is the largest single cause of adult disability. Currently, around 56,000 Australians have a stroke each year; more than 100 every day. While the rates of people dying from stroke have dropped significantly in the last 30 years, around half the stroke survivors alive today suffer from a disability affecting their daily life.

Since RPA's comprehensive stroke centre was launched in April 2017, 130 people with a major stroke have been treated, although Maree is the first to have been taken straight off a plane.

Maree said she is eternally grateful to the Jetstar pilots and crew, the airport staff, the paramedics, her treating clinicians and the rehab staff.

"All I can say is thank you from the bottom of my heart," The 77-year-old great-grandmother said.

See the Sunrise story here:…

To learn more about Maree’s story, watch the video here.

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