June 8, 2011 — Trapped in a small plane high in the sky, University of Virginia Health System nurse Jacque Griffin didn't even have space to stretch out her unexpected patient. But her medical expertise and prompt action saved a father of two who otherwise would have died long before the plane could touch down.
Steve Beagles, 51, was traveling to Charlotte, N.C., en route to a long-overdue vacation in the Bahamas when he suddenly slumped forward. His wife, Lisa, tried to wake him and, when she couldn't, screamed for a doctor.
"Immediately this flight attendant came from the front of the plane and this other person came from the back of the plane," Lisa Beagles recalled. "She just looked at me and she said – and I'll never forget this – she said, 'I'm not a doctor, but I'm a nurse.'"
Griffin, who was returning to Charlottesville after visiting family, quickly determined Steve was not breathing and had no pulse.
"When I picked his head up, I knew he wasn't with us," she recalled later. "He was essentially dead."
With the situation dire and every second crucial, she knew what had to be done: "I looked at the flight attendant and said, 'I need to do CPR, and we need to land the plane.'"
But because the packed aircraft was so small – the rows had three seats on one side of the aisle and two on the other, Griffin recalls – there was no room to lay Steve down. So Griffin had to do her lifesaving work with him unconscious in his seat, still belted in.
She performed a precordial thump – a strong blow to the chest – and then began CPR. She also applied the plane's on-board defibrillator.
Working in the confined space "was really difficult," she said. "It was much harder than I would have thought it would be."
Soon she pulled Steve back from death's door, though his heartbeat remained sluggish and he struggled to make sense of his surroundings.
Still, it was enough. The plane made an emergency stop in Atlanta, and Steve was rushed to a hospital. Doctors have determined he was suffering from a rare cardiac condition and continue to conduct tests, his wife said from Mississippi, where they live with their daughters, 3 and 6.
"We count Jacque as our angel in flight," Lisa Beagles said. "If Jacque, the only medical person on that flight, had not reacted in the way she did, we would not have my husband here today."
Griffin, director of clinical care operations at U.Va.'s Transitional Care Hospital, remains modest about saving Steve Beagles' life. But the excitement made an impression: "I'll think about it," she said. "It'll come to mind as I'm getting on a plane. For sure."