By David Ewing Duncan
March 12, 2012
The emergency announcement on the transcontinental flight was terse and urgent: “Is there a doctor on board?” A passenger in distress was feeling intense pressure in his chest.
Eric Topol strode down the aisle to examine the passenger to see if he was having a heart attack, a diagnosis that normally would be tough at 35,000 feet. But Topol was armed with a prototype device that can take a person’s electrocardiogram (ECG) using a smartphone. The director of the Scripps Translational Science Institute near San Diego, he had just demonstrated how it worked during a lecture in Washington, D.C.
“It’s a case that fits over your iPhone with two built-in sensors connected to an app,” says Topol, showing me the device, made by Oklahoma City-based AliveCor. “You put your fingers on the sensors, or put them up to your chest, and it works like an ECG that you read in real-time on your phone.”
“So I put the sensors right on the man’s chest,” he continues, “and I could tell he was having a heart attack. I said to the pilot: ‘Get this guy off the plane, this is the real deal.’ And they made an emergency landing. My understanding is he did very well.”