Minutes into her flight, Ashley Spencer popped open a bag of chips and started to munch.
For years, Spencer has been suffering from a rare autoimmune disorder, and she hoped new medication might be able to help. So the 28-year-old was traveling from Philadelphia to the renowned Cleveland Clinic on Saturday to see whether she might be a candidate.
The aircraft was barely in the air when Spencer started to feel sick, she said. She told her mother she was going to the airplane bathroom to vomit.
On her way back to her seat, she said, her face turned bright red, her throat started to tighten and she fell to the floor.
“I stopped breathing,” she said Monday in a phone interview with The Washington Post. “But I still had a pulse.”
She said she woke up gasping for air and knew exactly what was happening — because it had happened before. Spencer, who has a severe peanut allergy, had gone into anaphylactic shock, a life-threatening allergic reaction.
She said that her autoimmune condition — Churg-Strauss syndrome, also known as eosinophilic granulomatosis with polyangiitis — makes her more sensitive to allergies; she suspects that the chips, which she had purchased at the airport, may have been cooked in peanut oil.
Immediately, she started asking for her purse, where she kept EpiPens and an albuterol inhaler for emergencies.
A flight attendant called out to the other passengers for help, shouting: “If there is any medical professional on this plane, we have an emergency.”
Erich Kiehl, an electrophysiology fellow from the Cleveland Clinic, was also on board American Eagle Flight 5471.
He and another physician from Duke University administered Spencer's two EpiPens and albuterol inhaler, then monitored her vitals until she started to stabilize, Cleveland Clinic spokeswoman Andrea Pacetti told The Post.
After Spencer's collapse, the plane was diverted to Pittsburgh.
Spencer said Kiehl administered a third EpiPen from his own kit, and that upon landing, she was given a fourth.
She was rushed to a hospital in Pittsburgh, where she said she was kept in the intensive care unit Saturday night, according to ABC affiliate WEWS.
“I am beyond thankful,” she told the station. “I could have died up there.”
Spencer told The Post that she was diagnosed with eosinophilic granulomatosis with polyangiitis in 2012. The disorder causes inflammation in the blood vessels, slowing down blood flow to vital organs and other tissues, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Over the past several years, she said, she has been undergoing regular chemotherapy treatments and taking steroids and other medications to manage her condition.
She has been desperate for a better solution. That's why, she said, she set up an appointment at the Cleveland Clinic to consult with experts.
“You want the best treatment for yourself,” she said. “Don’t want chemo your entire life.”
Despite the incident, Spencer made it to her appointment Monday at the clinic and said she hoped to be able to thank Kiehl in person while she was there.
“I’m probably going to cry because he saved my life; you can’t put a price on that,” Spencer said, adding that she has rush-ordered a plaque to give to Kiehl. “Words are never going to be able to express my gratitude.”
She said she wants the doctor to always know that “what he did was amazing.”
Kiehl could not immediately be reached for comment, but the Cleveland Clinic said that the doctor contended he was simply doing his job.
Kiehl said he was “just using his medical training and doing his job, and that this was really a team effort between him, the other physician, the flight attendants, the pilot and the other passengers on board,” the clinic said in a statement.
Following the incident, American Airlines wished Spencer “a speedy recovery.”
“We appreciate the assistance of the two doctors, including Dr. Kiehl, who assisted our crew members in caring for Ms. Spencer,” the airline said in a statement. “Our customer relations team will be reaching out to both doctors to offer our thanks and appreciation for their assistance on American Eagle flight 5471.”
This post has been updated.