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I was recently on a flight during which a passenger had a medical emergency. The passenger vomited and was reportedly unconscious.

The aircraft was either a Boeing 737-700 or 737-800. I'm pretty sure it was the 800. It had pretty blue lighting on the interior ceiling, including oval illuminated cutaways.

Located above one row of seats were two ports marked "Medical Communications" (or something like that).

During the emergency, one of the flight attendants connected a wired headset to these ports in order to communicate with others.

With whom was he likely speaking?

As an aside, the system was poorly designed. One ports was black and the other gray; both ports otherwise looked identical and were the same size; the colors of the headphone connectors did not match the ports. Both ports were required to make it functional. The flight attendant had to try multiple times to get the correct wires into the correct ports. I had to help the flight attendant get it connected properly. Such a simple and important issue to fix.

Bonus question: Given that the multiple ports did not appear to be for redundancy, why was such a time-critical system not designed with a single port?

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    $\begingroup$ sounds like a standard aviation headset connection. Where the connectors of different sizes? $\endgroup$ – ratchet freak Feb 18 '15 at 16:37
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    $\begingroup$ What airplane was it? Could you take a picture of those ports? $\endgroup$ – Farhan Feb 18 '15 at 16:53
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    $\begingroup$ @ratchetfreak You'd be surprised how many people who have never worn a headset struggle with "standard" aviation headset connectors. Helicopter/Military systems got it right with the U147 plug (one plug does everything). $\endgroup$ – voretaq7 Feb 18 '15 at 17:04
  • $\begingroup$ Great questions and comments. I'll update my question right now with more details. $\endgroup$ – RockPaperLizard Feb 18 '15 at 20:29
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I'm going to assume you're talking about something like this:

Medical Emergency jacks
Photo liberally stolen from here.

As other have mentioned, these are generally connections for a standard aviation headset (headphone and microphone plugs). When plugged in you're typically connected to the cockpit (so the pilots know what's going on), and on commercial airlines you may also be patched in to a medical consulting service via radio.

The principle behind this is similar to the early paramedic programs in the United States: Personnel with some basic training (like flight attendants) are connected to a doctor. They describe the patient's condition and symptoms, and the doctor advises on a course of treatment, which can begin immediately and hopefully give the patient a better chance of survival.

The radio patch can also be used by a doctor onboard the aircraft to consult with other physicians and to help the flight crew arrange for appropriate transport services to meet the plane when it lands.

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  • $\begingroup$ As a semi-related aside, I don't think the airline systems include any kind of telemetry capability (early paramedic programs used radios like the APCOR which could transmit EKG data to the remote doctors) - That's been largely phased out in paramedic programs & obsoleted in general by AED (Automated External Defibrillator) systems today though. $\endgroup$ – voretaq7 Feb 18 '15 at 20:36
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    $\begingroup$ Your assumption is exactly correct (different aircraft, same connectors)! BTW, notice how difficult those flaps are to operate from the aisle, with each going a different direction and requiring insertion perpendicular to the operator's line of sight. $\endgroup$ – RockPaperLizard Feb 18 '15 at 20:42
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    $\begingroup$ This is correct, it is just a connection to the on board comms, so you don't have to drag the interphone all the way there and also so you can be hands free. The pilots will get a radio patch via AIRINC to MEDLINK. $\endgroup$ – casey Feb 19 '15 at 5:47
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To answer your questions:

The headset allows the steward to talk on the aircraft's common channel which the pilot can connect to any radio frequency. Normally the steward will be talking both the captain and possibly to the tower of the arrival airport. The tower can patch in phone lines. So, if necessary, the tower can telephone a doctor, then patch in the doctor to the frequency.

In most cases the comm link is just to make sure that arriving emergency personnel have the right information. For example, what might happen is the following:

  1. Captain calls tower: "We have a medical emergency on board."

  2. Tower tells captain: "Okay, emergency services are on their way." (An ambulance will greet the aircraft as soon as it lands.)

  3. Stewardless plugs and talks to tower: "The passenger says he is diabetic. A doctor here on the plane says it looks like insulin shock."

  4. Tower (on the line with 911): "Hello, it looks like our passenger is diabetic and going into insulin shock".

  5. 911 calls ambulance on radio: "Patient is diabetic and may be experiencing insulin shock."

This is just one scenario, but it is typical. Basically one person relays information to the next and the steward is the first link in that chain.

To answer your second question: aviation headsets have two ports: one for the earphones (listening) and the other for the microphone (speaking). The plugs are designed for ruggedness and reliability and are 1960s technology. In theory a more convenient duplex plug system could be used, but out of conservatism that has not happened yet.

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