Juneau doctor saves passenger's life on flight from Boston

Physician John Bursell is shown in the Juneau Pain Center on Thursday. Bursell has been nominated by the Juneau Police Department for their Citizen's Award for Lifesaving after administering CPR to a man experiencing a medical emergency on a flight from Boston to Seattle on Tuesday.

Juneau Bone and Joint Center doctor John Bursell is known for his marathon and triathlon accomplishments, but his professional work goes unnoticed unless you are a patient.


On Tuesday, Bursell saved a fellow passenger’s life on a flight from Boston to Seattle after he and his wife Jamie ran the Boston Marathon.

“This was the only time my legs did not hurt on this trip,” Bursell said. “For a little while, my legs weren’t sore. With all the adrenaline, they didn’t hurt for a while.”

While flying back to Juneau on Alaska Airlines Flight 15, a fellow passenger suffered cardiac arrest.

“They announced over the intercom that someone was having trouble and asked for any medical personnel to assist,” Bursell said. “There were actually four or five people that responded, I was just one of them.”

The responders — another doctor, two nurses, and another male professional — were seated throughout the airplane. The victim, an elderly man, was in first class.

“There were folks closer that responded first,” Bursell said. “When they asked for more help and it was decided he needed CPR, I assisted with the ventilation. Making the airway and ventilation.”

The victim had been evaluated and placed in the aisle, where compressions were started. A mask and airbag was present when Bursell arrived.

A defibrillator was put in place while other flight attendants calmed the victim’s wife and the other passengers.

“It was just a matter of holding the mask in place and providing ventilation,” Bursell said.

The flight was at its halfway point to Seattle from Boston when the incident occurred.

The flight was diverted to Fargo, N.D., where it made an emergency landing at Hector International Airport.

“It was probably a half hour or so before we were able to set down in Fargo,” Bursell said. “It was the nearest airport with medical facilities available.”

“Really all we could do was CPR,” Bursell said. “And we kept doing that for 30-40 minutes until we landed and medics came aboard and were able to take over. The goal is to maintain his blood flow to the brain. The AED didn’t find a shockable rhythm, so we couldn’t use electric shocks to restart his heart.”

The plane spent roughly 90 minutes at Hector while emergency responders met the plane and the man was taken by ambulance to a hospital.

“They announced over the P.A. system that he had a weak pulse,” Bursell said. “After they got him into the ambulance and to the hospital, that is all I know.”

Bursell said he would like to know what the man’s status is.

“I don’t really have a way to find out,” Bursell said. “I am just pleased that I was able to help out and do my part. I was just part of the group of people who responded and did what we needed to do and hopefully it works out well for him and his family. We all just went back to our seats. I think part of it is just privacy, you know, it was a pretty private thing that just happened for both of them, the wife and the gentleman. It would be nice to know how he is but you just do what you need to do.”

Bursell said most of the passengers were in shock until it was announced that the victim had the weak heartbeat.

“Everybody clapped and it was kind of a relief,” Bursell said. “There was some shaking of hands and congratulations, we had done what we needed to do.”

On Wednesday, Bursell was nominated by the Juneau Police Department for the Citizen’s Award for Lifesaving. This honor is given to any community member or visitor directly responsible for sustaining or attempting to sustain another human life. Nominations go to an award’s committee, then to the police chief. Awards are presented quarterly.

“My thought was it was just kind of normal,” Bursell said. “It is what any other doctor in town would have done if they had been in that situation. We help out and hope that things work out well.”


In 2010, the CPR guidelines rearranged the order of CPR steps. Instead of airway and breathing first, followed by chest compressions (A-B-C: Airway, Breathing, Compressions), the American Heart Association wants rescuers to do chest compressions first, then airway and breathing (C-A-B).

“They teach us that protocol,” Bursell said. “But if you have the training and the people to do both, then you do the ventilations along with the chest compressions.”


In the A-B-C sequence chest compressions are often delayed while the responder opens the airway to give mouth-to-mouth breaths or retrieves a barrier device or other ventilation equipment. By changing the sequence to C-A-B, chest compressions will be initiated sooner and ventilation only minimally delayed until completion of the first cycle of chest compressions (30 compressions should be accomplished in approximately 18 seconds).

“I think it is important that people learn at least CPR and basic lifesaving,” Bursell said. “And don’t be afraid to help out if people need assistance. Once you learn the basics it is pretty simple as far as providing chest compressions and ventilation if necessary.


  • Switchboard: 907-586-3740
  • Circulation and Delivery: 907-586-3740
  • Newsroom Fax: 907-586-9097
  • Business Fax: 907-586-9097
  • Accounts Receivable: 907-523-2230
  • View the Staff Directory
  • or Send feedback






Thu, 01/18/2018 - 09:34

The local food movement is young