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ER doctor says United Airlines staff questioned credentials during medical emergency on plane

Dr. Sasson says staff on a United Airlines flight repeatedly questioned her credentials while she treated a passenger who had a medical emergency.

A Denver doctor said she was repeatedly questioned about her credentials when she jumped in to help a passenger who was having a medical emergency on her flight.

Dr. Comilla Sasson said she was asked for proof that she was a doctor, even as she started treating the patient. Sasson, who is a practicing emergency medicine physician, also serves as the medical expert here at 9NEWS.

United Airlines said in an emailed statement that crew members "are trained to ask for identification if there is a volunteer." 

On Thursday, Sasson was a passenger on an early morning United Airlines flight to Houston. The plane had already left the gate but was not yet in the air when she heard something strange. 

“All of a sudden I heard a thump and a groan,” she said.  

Just up the aisle, she found a person in the middle of a medical emergency.

“I said right away, hey, ‘I'm an ER doctor, how can I help?,'” Sasson said. “And the flight attendant asked me three different times, ‘Are you a doctor? What kind of a doctor are you? Are you a doctor?’ And kept asking me, and I kept saying, ‘I’m a doctor and I need to help this patient because this person is critically ill. Something is obviously wrong with this person."

Sasson said she was also repeatedly asked for her credentials, which she doesn’t carry with her all the time, especially when she’s not at work. 

“I said, ‘Look, they're online. I don’t carry credentials. No doctor carries credentials around, I don’t have time for this right now. I need to take care of this person who’s ill,’” she said. “In my mind, spending five minutes, literally, would have been the difference between life and death for this person, potentially.” 

Sasson said she began to treat the patient anyway, despite the ongoing questions. She said there have been other doctors in similar situations before.

“I remember a month or two ago, a kind of a similar case, an African American woman physician who was on a Delta flight. She actually produced her credentials and said, ‘Hey, I’m a doctor.’ And yet nobody would believe her,” she said.

Sasson said this isn’t the first time someone questioned her credentials, either. 

“Women, often times, are thought of as nurses. They’re not referred to as doctors. That’s not even implicit biased, that’s something that happens every single day. It happens to me every single day in the ER when I walk into a patient room. somebody says, ‘Hey, when is the doctor coming to see me?’” she said. “So I think there’s a gender bias to it, and I do wonder if there’s something to the fact that I’m an Asian American, woman doctor who came up and said, ‘Hey, look, I want to help. I want to do something.’ And it was this sort of instant, well prove to me that you’re really a doctor.” 

Sasson said she was also frustrated by delays when asking for medical supplies on the plane. About twenty minutes later, she said the plane returned to the gate and she handed off the patient to paramedics. She said once the patient was treated, she did provide her credentials to airline staff.

United Airlines issued the following statement about the incident by email:

"Prior to takeoff, United Flight 1192 from Denver to Houston returned to the gate due to a medical emergency. One customer was treated by paramedics at the gate and rebooked on the next flight to Houston after the customer was deemed safe to fly by paramedics.

We are thankful to Sasson who assisted in treating the customer. The safety of our customers is our top priority. In medical emergencies, time permitting, our crew are trained to ask for identification if there is a volunteer. We are reaching out to Sasson and the crew to understand what occurred."

Sasson said, after the event, the flight attendants thanked her, too. She hopes other people with medical training won’t hesitate to help in an emergency, just because someone might question them or their credentials.

“Maybe I don’t look like a doctor, maybe I do. It shouldn’t really matter. If I want to go help somebody and somebody’s having a life-threatening event, then I should be allowed to do that,” she said.

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