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To the Rescue
Lisa Katulis’ training helps her navigate through an emergency in the sky.

On a recent overseas flight, Lisa Katulis drew from varied experiences and skills to stabilize a patient in distress.

Returning from a business trip from Trinidad and Tobago in March, Lisa Katulis had no way of knowing that her unusual combination of job skills would make her an indispensable passenger on the four-hour flight. Katulis, assistant director of global collaborative services for Johns Hopkins Medicine International, had just nestled into her seat for an after-dinner nap when the pilot requested assistance from a physician or nurse practitioner.

More than halfway through the flight and thousands of miles over the ocean, a passenger was experiencing symptoms of a heart attack, and no one was responding to the pilot’s repeated calls for help.

Then came a more urgent request for a nurse or paramedic. Katulis, who has moonlighted as a nurse for an Eastern Shore hospital for the past two years, jumped up to assist. By the time she reached the plane’s back galley, the passenger’s husband had already given his wife aspirin and placed a nitroglycerin tablet under her tongue.

Still, the woman—an elderly East Indian living in Trinidad and traveling to Toronto to visit her grandchildren—was experiencing chest pains and shortness of breath. Faced with bringing a critical situation under control, Katulis, a 2006 graduate of Johns Hopkins School of Nursing, did what she was trained to do.

“I wasn’t nervous,” she says. “We put her on oxygen, and there was an AED [automatic external defibrillator] near us.” She took her pulse and blood pressure. “The patient retained consciousness and never lost a pulse.”

The passenger’s fear, however, was exacerbating her fragile condition. To calm and stabilize the woman, Katulis called on a combination of skills and experience attained from a series of jobs—most of them in health care—dating back to her graduate school days. Katulis not only holds a master’s in health administration and business administration, but also has experience as a social worker and has traveled extensively to Trinidad and Tobago for Johns Hopkins Medicine International.

In fact, Katulis has only once taken a detour from the health care industry—when she worked as a flight attendant for Southwest Airlines. She discovered two things: medical emergencies in the skies are not rare (she and her crew had to handle a passenger who died in his seat), and respect for the customer is the basis for the airline’s success.

Sensitive to the Indian custom that women should be covered, Katulis says she made sure her sari remained in place. “I stayed with her and held her hand,” says Katulis. With the situation under control, she was able to decline the pilot’s offer to make an emergency landing in Cuba. Instead, the sick woman was taken to a local hospital when the plane reached its destination in Miami.

A month later, Katulis was surprised to receive a formal thank you from American Airlines that included a 15,000-mile deposit into her frequent-flyer account. She plans to redeem the miles for a trip to her favorite Caribbean vacation spot—Aruba—for a week of wind surfing later this summer.

In the meantime, she’s shifting into another career change. A former assistant administrator in Psychiatry and Pediatrics at Hopkins, Katulis originally started nursing school to gain credibility in her administrative roles. “I didn’t have common experience with clinicians,” she explains. “It was like we were speaking two different languages.” But as she got into nursing, “I realized how much I loved it, especially the patient contact. People tell me my eyes light up when I talk about it.”

On June 1, Katulis will start her first full-time staff nursing job at Hopkins Hospital in adult emergency medicine. But she can thank International, she jokes, for her start in in-flight nursing. 

—Janet Anderson



Johns Hopkins Medicine

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