West Palm Beach VA nurse practitioner saves infant on plane

It’s a well-worn scene from the movies: a medical emergency, thousands of feet above the Earth on a typical airline flight. The call goes out on the intercom: Is there a doctor in the house?

Joselito “Lito” Velasquez, an immigrant from the Philippines and a nurse practitioner at the West Palm Beach VA Medical Center, answered that call during the summer. As a result, he saved the life of a feverish 6-month-old girl in seizure, the hospital said.

Velasquez didn’t want any publicity, but the hospital found out about it and got the word out this past week. The incident happened so fast the nurse practitioner still doesn’t even know the name of the baby he saved or her parents.

“His compassion and willingness to act during a crisis to help a family and child, without any expectations or recognition, fills me with humility and hope. We are very fortunate to have heroes like him caring for our nation’s heroes, our veterans,” said VA Hospital Director Donna Katen-Bahensky.

Velasquez’s heroics occurred July 1 on American Airlines commuter Flight 1861 between Charlotte and Raleigh, N.C. just as the plane was about to take off.

“As the last passengers were boarding, I heard a commotion at the front of the plane and then the crew asked if there were any medical personnel aboard,” Velasquez said.

When Velasquez got to the infant, she was in the middle of a seizure, affecting her whole body. The family, hailing from Phoenix, said the baby had been running a fever for two days. Velasquez laid the infant carefully on the floor of the plane and asked the crew to get oxygen and to call paramedics at Charlotte Douglas International Airport.

“I just wanted to keep her airways open and make sure nothing was clogging them and then after six minutes the baby started turning blue,” Velasquez recalled. “I said, ‘Oh please, please, don’t do this.’” He asked the crew where the paramedics were.

Velasquez increased the oxygen and the child started getting calmer. Color returned to her tiny cheeks. The paramedics arrived and took baby and parents to the hospital. As he turned to go back to the seat, the plane erupted in applause.

“I was so humbled,” he said. “You know I’ve been doing this profession for 30 years. This is the kind of job that we do. We save lives.”

Dr. Jeral Ahtone, director of medical and occupational health for American Airlines, later wrote to Velasquez to express thanks for offering medical expertise when it was needed most. “Without a doubt, you greatly improved a difficult situation,” he said.

Sandi Karnbach, director of Home Based Primary Care Program at the hospital, said that Velasquez casually mentioned to her what happened, saying he didn’t want to make a big deal out of it.

“It is no surprise to me that he jumped in to help this little girl and saved her life,” she said. “Throughout his years working on the HBPC team, Joselito has shown so many acts of kindness toward his colleagues, patients, families and caregivers — more times than I could ever count. He exemplifies the true spirit of a stellar provider and a selfless, caring individual.”

Born in the Philippines, Velasquez came to the United States in 1988 and became a citizen. Velasquez by then was a seasoned nurse practitioner, following his older brother into the field. Two of his adult children also are in the medical field. He was in North Carolina to visit his daughter, who works as a pharmacist for Publix.

After serving as a nurse at New York City’s St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center for 12 years, he came to West Palm Beach to work for the VA. As a nurse practitioner, he is the next best thing to a doctor. He can prescribe some medications and collaborates with doctors on patient care.

“I came to the VA because I wanted to serve our nation’s veterans,” he said. “Both of my grandfathers served during World War II, and I feel it is an honor and a privilege to give back to those who served and sacrificed for us.”

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