Passenger sues airline over response to in-flight illness

SEATTLE — Look through Kelly Martin’s photos from a few years ago, and you’ll see an active young woman, who summited Mount Rainier and ran a marathon in the Mojave Desert.

You’ll also see a U.S. Army captain with big plans.

“Becoming a pilot or simply jumping out of planes,” she said.

Now a physically rigorous career is in doubt after a medical problem, which Martin claims in a lawsuit, began on an American Airlines flight from Seattle to Philadelphia in May 2018.

“I wanted to surprise my mom for Mother’s Day,” Martin said.

According to her lawsuit, about half an hour after takeoff on the red-eye flight, Martin, who was sitting in the window seat, started experiencing cramps in her abdomen.

“Was unable to withstand it after a while. I ended up waking up my aisle mates and making my way to the bathroom,” she said.

It quickly got worse.

“I began throwing up. At one point, the pain became so great that I actually blacked out and woke up on the floor of the bathroom and called for help,” she said.

When the flight attendants arrived, they started asking questions.

“'Are you pregnant? Is this first flight? Have you ever had issues before? Have you ever drank on the flight?' To which I answered ‘no’ to all questions,” Martin said.

Martin said they seemed skeptical and pulled out the tablet to make sure she hadn’t ordered alcohol during the flight.

Martin wasn’t drunk.

She was very sick and was soon back in the bathroom, again throwing up and then blacking out.

She said a flight attendant offered ginger ale and a Tylenol.

Martin said she overheard a flight attendant reassuring the pilot over the phone that there was no need to land the plane and that they were not going to wake any passengers to ask for help because it was the middle of the night.

According to Martin’s lawsuit, flight attendants moved her to an empty row of seats and strapped her in for the remaining four and a half hours.

Martin said she didn’t see them for the rest of the flight.

“It was all a blur at that point. I was going in and out of consciousness,” she said.

Once on the ground in Philadelphia, Martin said she had to struggle off the plane.

When she was given a wheelchair in the terminal, she fell out.

“When the EMT’s arrived, I was on the ground throwing up by myself,” Martin said.

Those EMTs quickly rushed her to Methodist Hospital, where doctors confirmed an intestinal obstruction.

That Mother’s Day surprise Martin planned turned out quite different.

“She had no idea I was landing, and she got a call from the hospital saying, ‘You need to see your daughter.’ She said, ‘My daughter’s in Seattle. It’s no way it’s her.’ They’re like, ‘No, we have her.’”

Martin’s mother ended up beside Martin in the hospital for several weeks as doctors removed her large intestine.

Martin’s lawsuit calls her type of intestinal obstruction a known risk at high altitudes and claims that if flight attendants had got her medical help, the problem would have been more quickly discovered, and she could have avoided such a serious surgery.

“Kelly not only didn’t get care. She got ignored, and that’s unacceptable,” said Martin’s attorney, Nate Bingham.

He said while in the air, we’re all at the mercy of the airlines.

“When you’re in an airplane, you’re in a little tube 5 miles above the earth going 600 miles an hour. You can’t just step out and call your own ambulance, and you can’t just take yourself to the hospital,” Bingham said.

Bingham said flight attendants never asked if a medical professional was onboard or called for advice from a doctor on the ground.

“We pretty strongly believe that if any qualified medical professional had heard what was going on, it was no question this woman needs to get to an emergency room,” Bingham said.

That emergency room, Bingham said, should not have been all the way in Philadelphia.

“They should have grounded the plane,” he said.

In a statement to KIRO 7, an American Airlines spokesperson wrote: “We are reviewing the allegations of the complaint. We take the safety and comfort of our customers very seriously and we’re committed to providing a positive experience for everyone who travels with us.”

In court filings, American Airlines denied “that the flight crew was made aware of a serious medical situation.”

Martin’s lawsuit is now in federal court.

She now has a desk job with the Army because her body doesn’t work like it used to.

“At times, it’s hard to accept, but I have a very strong-willed attitude, and I’m not going to let this stop me. My big goal is to get back into the physical activities that I was once doing,” she said.

It’s a goal that’s now tough to reach — after a medical problem that began high in the air.

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