Nurse first, CEO second. That's how Gia Smith said she views herself.
So when a fellow passenger on a cross-country flight suffered a heart attack Sunday and the crew asked for any medical professionals on board, the Modesto woman jumped right in.
The six-plus-hour United Airlines flight from New Jersey to San Francisco was about 2 1/2 hours under way when a fellow Modestan, as Smith learned later, was struck by severe chest pain and began vomiting.
When flight attendants sought help, Smith — a registered nurse and the CEO of Central Valley Specialty Hospital in downtown Modesto — responded, along with a physical-therapy physician from UCSF.
"I came on and did an assessment of the patient," said Smith, who teaches basic life support and advanced cardiovascular life support. "Because of the vomiting, we had to take him off the chair and place him on the floor. "
The unresponsive patient, 27-year-old Luis Gijon, was given "MI (myocardial infarction) protocol," she said. "I administered nitro glycerin, I had to hold his tongue down because they only had nitro pills, not the paste form.
"I monitored his blood pressure, his cardiac rhythm and started an IV line."
When Gijon — traveling with fiancee Vanessa Nieves — came to, she spoke with him to keep him responsive. "We had to keep it going for 45 minutes. We requested that the pilot land the plane at the closest airport, which was Omaha, Nebraska.
"The paramedics met us, and we assisted in getting him off the plane and onto the ambulance."
The tight quarters of the plane were far from ideal for performing lifesaving efforts. The patient was moved to the area where flight attendants prepare meals, but still it meant a lot of working directly over him and stepping over him, Smith said.
The flight attendants did all they could to help, she said, and the passengers were "so, so considerate."
"The passengers were very nice and patient. Because they had to stop the plane, a lot of them missed connecting flights, but you could see the camaraderie among them, and the understanding. No one made a complaint, they even got up and clapped."
Smith said she's spoken with Nieves about her fiance, who remains hospitalized in Omaha. He's still weak but is off a ventilator, she said. Contacted briefly Tuesday afternoon, Nieves said she is hopeful he'll return home soon.
Smith called the experience on the flight "humbling."
She said that in her job, she tries to assist in emergency situations as often as she can, not so much because she's needed but "I realize the importance of jumping in and keeping my clinical skills fresh. Because even though I'm in administration, I'm a nurse first and I want the staff to know I'm always there to help."