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St. Luke’s Colleagues to the Rescue at 35,000 Feet in the Air
March 07, 2024

Jarrett Shugars, MD, and Abigail Freiwald, RN.

Two St. Luke’s colleagues, coincidentally embarking on vacations on the same flight to the Sunshine State, recently rescued a fellow passenger suffering a medical emergency.  

On Jan. 10, Abigail Freiwald, RN, and Jarrett Shugars, MD, were on an Allegiant Air flight with their respective families from Lehigh Valley International Airport to Orlando, Florida. Each was looking forward to some R&R time with their loved ones away from their often clinically intense jobs.

A semi-retired farmer sitting a few rows ahead of Freiwald suddenly lost consciousness about an hour into the flight.

“I felt nauseous then passed out,” recalls Craig Richards, age 70 from Elysburg, Northumberland County. “That’s all I remember until I came to lying on my back in the aisle.”

He and his family — his wife, son, daughter-in-law and four grandsons — were flying to Orlando to visit Disney World.  His family called out for medical help.

A med-surg nurse at the Geisinger St. Luke’s Campus since 2020, and recent Daisy winner, Freiwald left her husband and two children and rushed to assist Richards; she assessed him, took his blood pressure and starting an IV—available on the plane-- immediately. (The DAISY Award is a recognition program to celebrate and recognize nurses by collecting nominations from patients, families and co-workers.)

“He was grey but had a pulse and was breathing,” said Freiwald, a nurse for 15 years.

Richards said this kind of problem was new to him, that he might have been dehydrated. He had had a stent put in one of his heart arteries last year. 

Shugars, an emergency medicine physician at St. Luke’s Carbon Campus, traveling to visit his in-laws with his wife and two children, heard the commotion and headed back to help. Freiwald and another passenger, also a nurse, had laid the man on his back in the aisle to take care of him. 

Shugars and Freiwald had never met despite working for years for St. Luke’s University Health Network. But they became acquainted fast on the plane that was speeding across the sky high above the clouds.

“Abigail had the situation under control when I got there,” said Shugars, who graduated from St. Luke’s emergency medicine residency in 2022.

He examined Richards, learned his medical history from his family, and ruled out a heart attack or something as serious.

“The patient hadn’t complained of chest pain, and he slowly regained consciousness within 5-10 minutes after I got there.”

Freiwald had given Richards some Gatorade when he came to and was talking to him.

Shugars continued, “My guess is he was dehydrated and/or his blood pressure had dropped quickly or could have experienced a momentary cardiac arrhythmia.”  His family told Shugars he sometimes gets woozy from the meds. Shugars and Freiwald stayed with their patient for the rest of the flight.

Once the plane landed in Orlando, an EMS crew came with a stretcher for the patient, but he insisted on walking off the plane himself.

“He seemed better,” Freiwald said.

Richards was taken by ambulance to a local hospital where he underwent a series of medical tests, all of which were inconclusive.

The flight crew thanked both rescuers, who exchanged contact information with the patient’s family to learn how he’s feeling.

“I’m doing fine,” Richards said recently. He hasn’t suffered a recurrence of the fainting episode. “I really did appreciate that the nurses and doctor were there to help me. I don’t think it was a coincidence. I believe things happen for a reason.”

Back on terra firma, and at their respective destinations, the St. Luke’s heroes enjoyed their vacations. Each is pleased to have come to someone’s assistance in a time of need…much like they do every day at work. 

“I never thought I’d have to do this on a plane,” Freiwald said. “But it was very rewarding.”

Her three-year-old daughter was relieved when her mom rejoined them, and her son declared his mom “a hero.”  

Shugars added, “It was a bit more high-stressed than working in the ER, but we remained calm.” He said his wife finally saw what he does day-to-day at the hospital, but in a novel context.

“It felt good to help someone in need. I hope he’s doing well.”

Though each colleague had an incident-free return flight home, Shugars admits, “I was kind of on high-alert.” 

The Richards family enjoyed Disney World and are planning their next trip, in April, to Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic, reports Richards. He’s hoping for a stress-free flight and relaxing vacation.