How 3 doctors invited to Super Bowl LV saved a woman's life on the flight home

A group of doctors were "in the right place at the right time" earlier this month after attending Super Bowl LV on an invite from the NFL.

Nilesh Vora, Rahim Govani and Salima Thobani were at the game in Tampa, Florida, as three of the 7,500 vaccinated frontline healthcare workers and were en route back home to Los Angeles when a woman on the flight began having trouble breathing.

The trio, who are all friends in different medical specialities, leapt into action and saved the woman's life, as detailed by Jourdan Rodrigue at The Athletic.

L.A. doctors save life on way home from Super Bowl

Vora is a lead oncologist and medical director at the Todd Cancer Institute at Long Beach Memorial Center. Govani is an emergency room doctor and Thobani is an allergy and asthma specialist (Govani and Thobani are also married). They won tickets via the Los Angeles Rams' allotment to attend the game as vaccinated doctors.

Hours after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers won the Super Bowl, the three were on a flight from Miami to LAX to make it home for shifts that started early the next morning, per The Athletic. Several rows behind them was Blanca Diaz, a woman in her 60s, and her husband, Benito. She had been hospitalized with pneumonia in Miami for several days while visiting family, but was discharged and tested negative for COVID-19 twice.

An hour into the flight, Diaz had trouble breathing and was in clear distress. A flight attendant came to help and called over the loudspeaker for a doctor on board. Initially they believed she was having an asthma attack, so Thobani took over. But, he told The Athletic, he could only hear one of her lungs inflating and determined it wasn't asthma.

Believing in a higher power

Sign reading, 'The NFL welcomes our health care hero.'
Nilesh Vora, Rahim Govani and Salima Thobani were three of the 7,500 vaccinated healthcare workers who attended the Super Bowl this month in Tampa. (Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images)

Thobani needed a pulse oximeter, but the one on the plane was out of batteries. The doctors asked others for replacements and began looking through their own bags to see if they could get any from other items.

Govani found his own pulse oximeter in his carry-on bag.

“Obviously, as doctors, we have (them) in our house,” Thobani said, via The Athletic, “but how and why a pulse oximeter ended up in his backpack, I have no idea. And this is where I believe in a higher power. There is no way for me to explain (that).”

The doctors worked to diagnose her and decided she needed a second oxygen tank. Govani instructed the pilot to find a place to land, telling the pilot, "We don’t know if she is going to die on this plane.” They were four hours from Los Angeles, but with the doctors urging, landed in Houston instead. Diaz was taken to a hospital and the doctors continued on to Los Angeles, where they arrived a half-hour before returning to work.

Woman doing well after pneumothorax

The doctors were later able to touch base with the Diaz family and found she suffered a tension pneumothorax, a life-threatening condition if not immediately treated in intensive care. One lung had compressed so much it was compressing her heart and other lung, per The Athletic. Govani said the ER doctor told him she would have died if they didn't take action and she almost did on the way to the hospital.

“It was the right people, in the right specialty, at the right time," Govani said. “I’m glad we were chosen to go there, I’m glad we were on the right flight, and I’m glad we were able to help.”

Diaz left the ICU this week and is cleared for discharge, per The Athletic. The family is waiting out the winter storm in Texas before heading back to Los Angeles via car, where they plan to meet up with the doctors once settled.

Vora said they didn't panic and formed a great team, but also "got lucky" that it worked out. Thobani said there must have been a purpose for them to be on the flight. "It just wasn't her time," Thobani said.

The three were thankful to be able to take a weekend away after winning free Super Bowl tickets as vaccinated healthcare professionals. Healthcare heroes were also honored by the NFL throughout the weekend, in the stadium and during the broadcast. The league included a healthcare worker as one of three honorary captains and inaugural poet Amanda Gorman wrote and performed an original poem honoring them before the game.

Vora told the Athletic for the first time during the pandemic she felt like somebody understood the difficulty and struggle of being a doctor during COVID or at least "is appreciating (our) efforts."

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