top of page

Flight Attendants Save Passenger's Life During In-Flight Emergency

Updated: May 31, 2023

Heart attack and cardiac arrest survivor Vonnie Gaither. (Photo courtesy of Vonnie Gaither)

Vonnie Gaither reluctantly bid farewell to her extended family reunion in Baltimore, knowing she had to embark on her journey back home to Anchorage, Alaska. The flight from Baltimore to Salt Lake City was uneventful, but everything changed when she boarded the plane bound for Anchorage.

Shortly after settling into her seat and notifying a friend of her departure, Vonnie suddenly slumped over, unresponsive and without a pulse. Two attentive flight attendants, James "Hutch" Hutchison, and his colleague, quickly noticed her condition while making their rounds to check seat belt compliance.

Reacting swiftly, Hutchison initiated CPR while his companion retrieved an automated external defibrillator (AED) from the aircraft. The AED delivers an electric pulse or shock to restore a normal heart rhythm. Despite the initial attempt to revive her with a jolt from the AED, Vonnie's heart did not respond. She was carried off the plane and transported toward rescue workers at the airport, receiving a second jolt on the breezeway. Finally, in the ambulance en route to a Salt Lake City hospital, her heart required a third jolt to regain a stable rhythm.

Meanwhile, Vonnie's daughter, Toi Gaither Registe, who lived near her mother in Anchorage, received a call from a concerned friend relaying the distressing news. Immediately booking the first available flight to Salt Lake City, Toi was headed to the Anchorage airport when she managed to find a doctor who could provide an explanation.

The doctor informed her that her mother had experienced a heart attack followed by cardiac arrest, two terms often mistakenly used interchangeably. A heart attack is caused by blockages in the arteries, while cardiac arrest results from electrical malfunctions in the heart.

Vonnie's heart attack had been triggered by a 90% blockage that necessitated the insertion of three stents. During her own flight to Salt Lake City, Toi overheard flight attendants discussing a passenger who had required CPR on the previous flight. It suddenly dawned on her that she was onboard the return trip of the same plane her mother had been on.

Eager to reach the hospital as quickly as possible, the crew requested that passengers remain seated to allow Toi to exit first upon landing. Overwhelmed with emotion, Vonnie woke up the next day from an induced coma, initially believing she had died. To her surprise and relief, she saw numerous family members, including her daughter, son, and ex-husband, gathered around her hospital room.

On the following day, Hutchison, one of the flight attendants who had played a crucial role in saving her life, visited Vonnie to check on her well-being. Toi warmly greeted him with a hug, expressing her gratitude. Vonnie was discharged from the hospital within a week, just in time for Toi to organize a modest yet joyous "55 and Alive" birthday celebration.

Determined to improve her health, Vonnie embarked on a journey of self-care in the summer of 2007. Despite a family history of heart disease, she had never given it much thought until her life-threatening experience. Encouraged by her daughter, who is a fitness coach, Vonnie participated in cardiac rehabilitation, engaged in regular walks, and exercised at home. She also adopted healthier eating habits, resulting in a weight loss of approximately 20 pounds.

However, her family history proved formidable, and in December of that year, doctors discovered plaque buildup around her arteries caused by scar tissue from one of the stents. Vonnie underwent triple bypass surgery to redirect blood flow around the compromised arteries in her heart.

Today, 15 years later, Vonnie is a retired school career counselor, enjoying her retirement and dedicating a significant portion of her time to abstract painting. Painting has become her therapeutic outlet, allowing her to express herself creatively and find solace in the colors and strokes of her artwork. Currently, she is working on a large decorative panel for a neighborhood recreation center in Anchorage.

Vonnie has maintained a heartfelt connection with Hutchison, the flight attendant who played a pivotal role in saving her life. They have stayed in touch over the years, and every year, around her birthday, Vonnie takes a moment to express her profound gratitude to him for enabling her to celebrate another milestone.

Now in retirement after 42 years of flying, Hutchison resides in Ogden, Utah. He looks back on his career with a sense of fulfillment, but he also shares a deeper bond with Vonnie beyond their shared experience on the plane. Hutchison himself underwent quadruple bypass surgery, further strengthening the connection between them. Reflecting on the incident, he humbly remarked, "I may be a mess, but thank God I was able to help Vonnie."

As part of her ongoing cardiac care, Vonnie diligently takes medication to manage her cholesterol and blood pressure, as well as blood thinners. She sees her cardiologist every six months to monitor her condition. Recently, she learned that she has early-stage blockage in one of her arteries, reminding her of the importance of maintaining her health.

Vonnie acknowledges the challenges she has faced in sustaining the healthier lifestyle she adopted following her heart attack. Over time, she has deviated from her more nutritious eating habits and has been less physically active, resulting in some weight gain. However, the motivation to be present for her two grandsons remains a powerful driving force.

With travel gradually resuming amid the ongoing pandemic, Vonnie looks forward to visiting friends and family, including her grandsons in Las Vegas. Whenever she travels, she adheres to the game plan she developed after her heart attack and cardiac arrest, taking care to avoid layovers in Salt Lake City.

Vonnie's story is a testament to the critical importance of immediate medical intervention during in-flight emergencies. The swift actions of James Hutchison and the flight attendants aboard that fateful flight exemplify the significance of CPR training and certification in the workplace - their quick response and proficiency in life-saving techniques made all the difference in Vonnie's survival.

As more individuals receive CPR training, the potential for more lives to be saved in similar situations increases. Vonnie's journey serves as a reminder to prioritize our health, be aware of family medical history, and remain vigilant even when seemingly healthy. With determination and ongoing care, Vonnie continues to paint her life's canvas, cherishing each stroke and celebrating each new day she is blessed to experience.


Read more of our blogs.

CPR training and Certification


bottom of page