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I only did what other medics would do, says Belfast nurse who saved life of seriously ill woman on jet

Humble Debbie Wightman hailed a hero for swift actions on flight from US

By Allan Preston

Published 08/10/2016

Debbie and husband Greig on holiday celebrating his 50th birthday
Debbie and husband Greig on holiday celebrating his 50th birthday

A Belfast nurse has been praised for saving the life of a seriously ill woman on a flight home from Las Vegas.

Debbie Wightman (46) - a nurse at Belfast City Hospital's cancer unit - was called into action a short time into the transatlantic flight when an elderly woman began vomiting blood in the plane's toilets and then became unresponsive.

Along with a retired community nurse and a bio-chemist on board, Mrs Wightman helped keep the woman alive until the flight landed in Heathrow nearly seven hours later.

Mrs Wightman was returning from a holiday in Las Vegas, where she celebrated her husband Greig's 50th birthday.

"I have no doubt in my mind that without their intervention this lady would not have survived," said Mr Wightman.

Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, the nurse and mother-of-three remained modest about her involvement, but described the challenges of helping a critically ill woman on the floor of a plane that was hours away from the nearest hospital.

"I had just closed my eyes when I heard over the Tannoy they were looking for a health professional," she said.

"I made myself known and went to the back of the plane where there was a poor little old lady lying unconscious who had vomited up a large amount of blood."

"Initially, it was quite scary because we couldn't find a pulse, even though she was breathing."

The cabin crew established contact with medics on the ground and did their best to help the stricken passenger.

"She was writhing in pain and we weren't able to lift her off the ground, so I spent six-and-a-half hours on my hunkers beside her, just outside the toilets - dear love her," Debbie said.

"The medical equipment on board is quite limited, so the dilemma is there of what you really can do.

"We established an IV line and gave her some fluid along with her medication."

At one point the British Airway's captain considered an emergency landing in Reykjavik, Iceland, if the woman's condition deteriorated.

"As nurses and medical professionals, you know in a hospital you can access more oxygen, more syringes and more fluid if you need it," said Mrs Wightman.

"You can ask others for advice, but we were quite limited in what we could do and I suppose what we were covered to do as well."

The ill passenger's husband, a man in his seventies, was left shaken and had no choice but to wait for hours as his wife lay in agony on the floor,

"He stood for a very long time," said Debbie. "He was very anxious and it was a night flight, so he was very disorientated and tired.

"For a health professional that doesn't know someone, you feel for them because you can see their pain and how scared they are. But your priorities can't be with them - it has to be on the patient."

Paramedics were at the ready when the aircraft finally landed at Heathrow airport outside London.

As passengers were led off the plane, the woman was given medical help on board before being taken to hospital.

Mrs Wightman said she was unaware of the woman's condition and added: "The thing for me is, when you help somebody, you don't always know what the outcome for them is, and there's the dread of something going wrong."

She also insisted she had acted as any other medical professional would in such a situation.

"I'm horrified my husband has even told anybody - I'm totally embarrassed," Debbie said.

"You enter that profession because you want to help people no matter where you are and whatever situation you're in. That's just what you do. It's not just nine to five - it's something I'd like to instil in my children."

Debbie is a mum of three sons aged 15, 17 and 20, and the middle child wants to follow her into a nursing career.

"He's just decided over the summer he'd like to be a nurse," she said. "I'm hoping he does. It's not an easy journey to take - you work hard and you can never really prepare someone for an encounter with someone who's at the end of their life or in pain.

"In the health service you encounter something new every day - every day is a learning day. You worry as a mother how they will cope with that."

Praising his wife, Mr Wightman said: "She tends to just deal with things in her stride. She then sits on her own afterwards and thinks about it and that's when she starts to turn to jelly.

"All in all, she's an astounding person who deserves our praise for being an exceptional human being.

"I know the Belfast Trust, where she works tirelessly, is lucky to have her - a dedicated medical professional, loving mother and wife."

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