After John Saran, MD, delivered a baby boy on a Southwest Airlines flight on Dec. 4, patients at his Naperville, Ill., office started showering him with shoelaces. Dr. Saran used a shoelace and a sweatshirt string to clamp the baby's umbilical cord.

Illinois doctor delivers air male

When a pregnant woman went into labor aboard a plane, a doctor-passenger used a shoelace, sweatshirt string and scissors to clamp and cut the cord.

By Christine S. Moyer — Posted Dec. 21, 2009

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Thousands of feet above the ground, Illinois internist John Saran, MD, delivered a premature, 5-pound baby boy in the back of a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737.

The doctor thought his flight was going to be the start of a quiet weekend with his wife, Janet, in the mountains overlooking Salt Lake City -- a getaway with no calls or pages from the office.

Instead, Dr. Saran became an instant media sensation, appearing on morning talk shows and in newspapers throughout the country.

"I've [responded to calls for a doctor] on planes, buses, cruise ships and in hotels for people with chest pain and stomach pain. ... But a lady in labor -- I never had to deal with that," said Dr. Saran, who has an internal medicine practice at Edward Hospital in Naperville, Ill., and is affiliated with MDVIP, a nationwide network of physicians who practice personalized preventive care.

He was napping on the Dec. 4 flight when his wife poked him and said the woman in front of them was in labor. The pilot issued a call: "Is there a doctor on board?"

This was the first baby Dr. Saran has delivered since medical school -- more than 30 years ago. So he thought delivering a baby might be beyond his expertise. "But I was the only [physician] there."

So he guided the 20-something woman to the rear of the plane and enlisted help from three flight attendants and two passengers who were nurses. He eased the expectant mother onto blankets and pillows piled on the floor.

Kneeling at her feet, Dr. Saran hoped the delivery would wait until the plane landed.

But then he saw the baby's head. "Everything happened very fast."

After two or three pushes, the mother gave birth, and Dr. Saran cleaned the baby, who was born a month premature. The doctor clamped the umbilical cord by tying his shoelace around one end and the string from a nurse's hooded sweatshirt around the other. The cord was cut with a pair of child-sized scissors.

The pilot announced, "We have a new passenger on board -- a baby boy," and the more than 100 passengers applauded.

Baby on board

The Salt Lake City-bound flight made an emergency landing in Denver about 20 minutes later. Paramedics boarded the plane, wrapped the baby in a warming blanket, and took the newborn and his mother to a waiting ambulance.

The Denver stop was recommended by an emergency physician in Pittsburgh who was monitoring the situation for Stat MD, an on-call medical service. Southwest, like many commercial airlines, relies on a 24-hour service to determine the seriousness of medical problems that arise during a flight and to walk people through emergency procedures as needed.

Dr. Saran delivered the baby without help from a physician on the ground, said Scott T. Harrington, MD, medical director of the Stat MD communication center. The emergency physician in Pittsburgh determined that delivery aboard the plane was imminent and coordinated emergency crews for the Denver landing.

The Federal Aviation Administration cautions women against flying after the 32nd week of pregnancy and encourages those who fly during their ninth month to bring a physician along, said FAA spokesman Tony Molinaro.

In a medical emergency such as labor and delivery, the FAA has a Good Samaritan provision that limits the liability of any physician on a flight who tries to help.

Dr. Saran and his wife eventually made it to Salt Lake City, where they spent more time with media interviews than relaxing. Dr. Saran is thankful that the mother and baby -- whose names he never learned -- are healthy.

"Anything could have gone wrong. What could have been a disaster turned out to have a happy ending."

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