The Nation's Health + [heart attack]

Heart attack: Pilot lands safely after heart attack, then dies

That was the disturbing headline on a report from MSNBC, also reported nationally on all the major news networks.

The story goes on:

"A pilot suffering a heart attack made an emergency landing on a highway, saving his three passengers shortly before he died...He landed the single-engine Cessna 185 on Utah 30 near Park Valley and was taken to Bear River Hospital in Tremonton, where he died."

We track these sorts of stories and it's frightening just how common they are. A school bus driver recently had a heart attack while driving 30 children; the bus crashed but no one was hurt. A 52-year old commercial bus driver suffered a heart attack while transporting 49 conference attendees; the bus plunged 400 feet down a ravine. Remarkably, 17 passengers suffered only minor injuries and there were no deaths.

There have even been incidents where the pilot of a jet liner suffered a heart attack in-flight. In 2000, the 53-year old pilot of a Northwest Airlines DC-10 died while in-flight from a heart attack while landing in Minneapolis. The 290 passengers were landed safely by co-pilot.

Most incidents where the driver or pilot has been incapacitated or died resulted in the deaths of only a handful of people. No major catastrophe has yet occured. But--mark my words--it will. These incidents just happen too frequently.

Virtually all of these and similar incidents could have been prevented. If the FAA, for instance, would insist that all pilots have a simple CT heart scan , it would become immediately obvious which pilots should be grounded and who should fly. Similar requirements could easily be applied to persons in charge of the welfare of many people, most notably school bus drivers.

It's not that tough! The FAA currently requires stress testing and cholesterol testing. Well, guess what? Followers of the Track Your Plaque program know that these tests do not effectively identify the person at risk for heart attack in the majority of individuals. Just ask former President Bill Clinton how helpful his stress tests (five in a row!) were. Or how valuable his cholesterol monitoring was--all prior to his emergency bypass surgery.