John Crewdson, Tribune Staff Writer

June 3, 1999

   When Delta Air Lines Flight 2076 left Salt Lake City for New Orleans on May 21, Bridgette McDonald, the 40-year-old senior flight attendant aboard the Boeing 727, expected to end her long day many miles later in a hotel room in Memphis.

   An hour later McDonald was back in Salt Lake City, in the emergency room of Latter Day Saints Hospital–a victim of cardiac arrest and the first person whose life was saved by the new portable defibrillators Delta is installing on its airplanes.

   "This is a truly remarkable story," said Jenny Poole, Delta’s senior vice president for in-flight services.

   McDonald, the mother of two children, never had time to get up from the rear-facing jumpseat into which she had belted herself during take-off before her heart lapsed into ventricular fibrillation, an erratic rhythm that halts the flow of blood to the brain–and, unless a defibrillator is nearby, culminates in certain death.

   "We had just passed 10,000 feet and they had just turned off the seatbelt sign when I passed out," McDonald said Wednesday from her home in Salt Lake City, where she was released from the hospital five days ago after surgeons installed an implantable defibrillator in her chest.

   "I don’t even remember going to work that day," said McDonald, who was herself trained to use the airline’s defibrillators only last month. "I felt fine, I know that much. The next thing I remember was a couple days later, being in the hospital and friends surrounding me, and one of the doctors explaining that I had had na cardiac arrest onboard the aircraft and that a defibrillator was used to revive me."

   The toll from cardiac arrest is estimated at 350,000 to 500,000 cases a year in the U.S.. Medical experts say that while sudden cardiac death is far less common before age 50, it can occur at any age.

   "The doctors said they had done an angiogram and looked at my heart and there didn’t seem to be anything wrong with it," McDonald said. "They think at some point in my life maybe a virus had lodged in there. They can’t come up with any other explanation."

   According to McDonald, the portable defibrillator , a Heartstream ForeRunner, was used by a vacationing Los Angeles-based Delta flight attendant who was traveling as a passenger, with assistance from two nurses also traveling as passengers. Two electric shocks were required to restore McDonald’s normal heart rhythm, the spokesman said.

   McDonald said she has had no occasion to use the defibrillators , and hadn’t even seen one before her recent in-service training. "But I’ve seen them used on television, on `E.R.,’ " she said. "Everybody I’ve spoken to at the airline thinks it’s a great idea and is pleased that we’re doing this."

   Delta was the second U.S.-based airline to begin carrying defibrillators and hospital-style emergency medical kits with a wide variety of cardiac and other drugs. The airline said installation of the defibrillators and medical kits, which began in January, would be completed by the end of this month.

   "For passengers who need treatment that can’t wait, they will be life-savers," said Dr. Cris Bisgard, Delta’s director of health services.

   The airline that launched the quiet revolution in airborne medical care, Dallas-based American Airlines, now has defibrillators and enhanced emergency kits on each of its 650-plus airplanes. So far American flight attendants have saved the lives of five passengers, most recently aboard an American flight from New York to Paris in January.

   The only other U.S. airline to carry defibrillators is US Airways, which has the machines on nearly all its widebody jets. Northwest Airlines recently announced plans to do the same.

   Chicago-based United Airlines, which originally promised to begin installing the machines last summer, says the first defibrillators will be installed in July. United says it expects to have half its fleet equipped by the end of this year, and the remainder a year from now.

   The airline’s first flight attendants will not be trained until September, according to United spokesman Andy Plews, and the bulk of them not until next year, which means that some United planes will carry defibrillators but no crew members trained to use them. In that case, Plews said, the machines could be used "by trained medical practitioners, hopefully, if there is one on board."