Ramon Goomber was far above the frigid recesses of Siberia, trying to sleep on an overnight flight to Hong Kong, when his friend Ming Li gave him an abrupt shake.
“Wake up,” said Li, a Toronto police constable. “This guy’s dead over here!”
So began an hours-long struggle to save a man in the throes of a cruising altitude heart attack. Alongside Dave Monks, an Australian doctor also on board, the travelling Torontonians took turns pumping the man’s chest, shocking him with the plane’s defibrillator and injecting him with shots of adrenalin to keep him from dying.
When the Cathay Pacific flight finally made an emergency landing in Beijing, Li and Goomber were soaked in vomit and blood, thoroughly exhausted. But the heart attack victim, a 60-year-old man from Vietnam, went on to recover with no brain damage, a feat his medical saviours wrote about recently in the British Medical Journal.
“At the end, we couldn’t stand. We couldn’t walk,” said Goomber, 32, a Toronto-area pharmacist and University of Toronto faculty member.
“I guess we felt a lot of satisfaction, knowing we got him off (the plane) alive.”
The flight took off from Toronto’s Pearson airport at 3:30 p.m. on May 18. About seven hours into the flight, with the cabin lights dimmed to help people sleep, a man in the aisle seat near Goomber and Li started complaining of heartburn.
Monks, the doctor from Australia, went to check on him after an announcement asked for medical assistance, realizing that neither the man nor his wife — who was sitting near the back of the airplane — spoke very much English.
“He kind of pointed to his jaw, that pain was running up his jaw and his arm, and then he went unconscious,” said Goomber, who heard the story from Monk when they started writing it for the BMJ weeks later.
As Li roused his friend from his partial sleep nearby, Monk started doing chest compressions on the man, pushing him against the back of his chair as he vomited profusely. Goomber and Li noticed the seat flexing, and thought it’d be more effective to get the man on the floor of the airplane.
“I pulled him out of his seat and started CPR in the aisle,” said Goomber.
But there wasn’t much room in the aisle, so Li and Goomber decided to drag the man to the back of the plane, where there was more space. Monks got the on-board defibrillator from a flight attendant.
“He was a big guy, but we dragged him all the way to the emergency exit,” said Li, 30.
Once at the back of the plane, they tore open the man’s shirt and ripped off a money belt he was wearing. “We couldn’t get a pulse yet, so we shocked him,” Goomber said.
His pulse quickened after the shock, but quickly faded, while Monks got on a satellite phone to help coordinate where to land the plane. They were just leaving Russian airspace, and the nearest hospital that could accommodate the patient was in Beijing — roughly two hours away.
They would have to keep the man alive until then.
“We’ve got a very weak, very weak, weak heart. No real huge signs of life,” said Goomber. “He looks dead.”
Over the next two hours, the airline saviours kept shocking and pumping the man’s chest, while Goomber used a syringe and adrenalin drugs from the on-board medical kit to kick-start the man’s heart every time it stopped. They used up three tanks of oxygen that were on the plane, and at one point gave the man a shot of morphine after he woke up moaning in pain.
By the time they handed the man over to paramedics on the Beijing tarmac, his pulse had disappeared 38 times, said Goomber. Monks accompanied the man to hospital, and informed Goomber and Li days later that the man was recovering well.
“It felt great,” said Li. “It’s hard to save somebody off the plane. Imagine doing this on the plane … That was a big feat definitely.”
Cathay Pacific did not respond to repeated requests for comment from the Star, but the men say the gratitude they felt on the Beijing tarmac — passengers and crew applauded them to their seats — didn’t extend too far. After initially promising a comfy, rewarding upgrade to first class on their trip back home, the airline offered just one premium seat, Goomber said.
So the heroes of flight CX825 flew standby back to Toronto, with the newlywed Li in a seat with a broken TV.