Patient flown for 23 hours in ‘flying ICU’ aircraft from US to India for emergency surgery

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A 67-year-old Indian woman who needed an emergency heart surgery was airlifted in a 23-hour-long flight from Portland, US, to India’s southern Chennai city, is what is being said to be the longest medical air transfer ever undertaken.

According to the International Critical-Care Air Transfer Team (ICATT), an air ambulance service based in the southern Indian city of Bengaluru, the plane stopped at locations as disparate as Iceland and Turkey.

The entire operation cost about Rs 10m (around £100,000), ICATT co-founder Shalini Nalwad, who supervised the complex evacuation, told the Press Trust of India.

The 23-hour long flight was a tense journey that flew the critically ill woman from Portland to the Tamil Nadu state capital with stops in Reykjavik and Istanbul.

“She was in the ICU in the US with a heart valve problem. The family was in touch with our cardiologist Dr Sai Satish from 5 July. They came here to get the heart valve repaired,” an official at Apollo Hospital in Chennai was quoted as saying to the BBC.

The woman, whose identity has not been revealed, was staying with her children in Portland when she developed the problem.

According to Ms Nalwad, the journey beat the company’s previous record of an 18-hour-long transfer from Johannesburg, South Africa to Chennai involving a cancer patient and which was done during the peak of the Covid lockdown in 2020.

“This was going to be a complex ICU management, away from any help at 41,000 feet in most of the journey of 23 hours,” she said.

A medical team that included critical care physicians and two perfusionists, responsible for operating heart-lung machines, flew to Portland first, two days prior to the scheduled flight to ready the patient for the transfer.

They converted a Challenger 605 plane into a “flying ICU”. The plane was first flown to Reykjavik and then to Istanbul for a refuel and to move the patient to another aircraft with a new crew.

With another refuelling stop in Turkey’s Diyarbakir, the flight was taken to Chennai.

“The biggest challenge in this operation was that the kidneys were completely dialysis-dependent and this therapy cannot be provided in transit. The transit time that they were facing was 23 hours in total, including 19.5 hours on flight alone,” Ms Nalwad said.

She added that the ICATT shifts two-three patients every day and also does organ transfers.

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