Family Criticizes Airline Crew’s Response to In-flight Reaction

in Food Allergy, Peanut & Tree Nut
Published: February 5, 2014
The McDonald family

A Massachusetts couple says an airline crew acted cavalierly when their nut-allergic daughter began to suffer an anaphylactic reaction on a flight from Orlando to Providence, Rhode Island.

Jennifer and Ed McDonald have complained to JetBlue Airlines and the Department of Transportation (DOT) about the incident aboard the February 2 flight. They say that the cabin crew at first didn’t take their 8-year-old daughter’s reaction seriously, then when they later did make a PA announcement asking for a doctor onboard, one steward questioned the credentials of two men who presented themselves as medical professionals. Ed, who is a former police officer, says one was a cardiologist who showed his medical licence.

“I can’t get over the actions of this crew,” Ed McDonald told Allergic Living. “He was denying my daughter treatment while he’s debating who’s a doctor or who’s not. The doctors could not believe this guy was telling them to stand down.”

Allergic Living asked a JetBlue media spokesperson for comment on this incident, but has not yet received a reply about the situation or what follow-up will be done. Ed McDonald said a corporate representative he spoke to was very receptive and promised to investigate and get back to him.

He found the unfolding of this incident extremely concerning: “There’s no worse feeling; you are in a flying tin can in the middle of nowhere and time is not on your side.”

The McDonalds and their three children were among 17 family members and friends on the flight, all traveling home from a Caribbean cruise. Their middle child, Nikki, who has allergies to tree nuts, peanuts, soy, wheat and shellfish, was in a window seat next to her cousin. About 20 minutes into the 2 1/2-hour flight, Jennifer noticed Nikki rubbing one eye hard and continuously. “What’s wrong,” she kept asking, but her daughter didn’t seem to be responding normally.

While she hadn’t eaten anything of concern, her mother soon suspected an allergic reaction; Nikki’s eye was becoming quite puffy. She alerted one of the flight crew that her daughter was having an allergic reaction and might need help, but in her view, she was initially met with indifference. The McDonalds moved Nikki to the row Ed was in, and the father gave his daughter liquid Benadryl. But her symptoms were still getting worse – her eye was swelling almost shut, her throat felt swollen and her breathing was getting difficult. “It was going bad real fast,” he says. Ed quickly administered one of her two auto-injectors.

Jennifer suspects that Nikki came in contact with pistachio, to which she is highly allergic, since one of her friends found a shell on the floor right behind the girl’s seat, while another in their group thought she saw pistachio dust. Jennifer says that likely someone was eating pistachios in Nikki’s seat on the flight before.

The family had been allowed to pre-board so Jennifer could use wipes to clean off the tray tables seatbacks and windows, but as the seats were made of cloth rather than leather, she hadn’t wiped down her daughter’s seat.

After Nikki’s epinephrine injection, Jennifer requested that a PA announcement be made asking fellow passengers to refrain from eating nuts as there was a passenger having a serious allergic reaction. The flight attendant she spoke to said that couldn’t be done, that it was against policy. “I think everyone on that plane would have understood given what was going on,” noted Jennifer.

JetBlue does not serve peanuts and only sometimes serves tree nuts. Usually considered one of the more progressive airlines for allergy accommodations, it will set up a three-row buffer zone in which passengers surrounding an allergic passenger are asked from consuming nuts. (In the McDonalds situation, this wasn’t necessary as their large group was its own buffer zone.)

With the kerfuffle over whether the doctors could look at Nikki or not, and cabin crew gathering around, Jennifer says her daughter felt crowded, upset and fearful. However, at least with the injection, her symptoms were improving. The mother says one flight attendant came by saying how much better the girl looked, but the McDonalds meantime were still very concerned, aware that they only had one more injector.

Jennifer told that attendant she wanted an ambulance waiting upon landing. She says the crew member questioned the need, suggesting the family might get charged for it. But the couple does say the medical incident was finally being taken more seriously. An ambulance met the plane and Nikki was examined in hospital. Unfortunately, several hours later, she did have a secondary (biphasic) reaction and had to go to the hospital near her home. She was given corticosteroids and epinephrine, then kept her for observation and sent home with a prednisone prescription.

Jennifer says the crew just seemed very unaware of the seriousness of an allergic reaction. What really bothers Ed was the feeling that “no one in that crew was working with us and helping us in that time of distress.”

See also:
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Allergies & Airlines: 8 Strategies to Reduce Risk
Airlines Hear the Case for Allergy Accommodations