University of Mary Senior Nursing Students Help Elderly Person on Airplane

Gracie Zottnick and Josh Sipes

BISMARCK, ND — Senior nursing students Gracie Zottnick and Josh Sipes were over 30,000 feet in the air and about midway into their three-and-a-half-hour Allegiant flight back to Bismarck from Orlando. The two were invited over Christmas break to join his family for a week of fun at Disneyworld, Universal Studios, and some R&R on the beach to reset before their final semester of nursing school started at the University of Mary. Not experiencing enough wizardry in Florida at Harry Potter World, the two were sitting next to each other near the front of the cabin with the magical sounds of “Harry Potter” coming through their noise-cancelling headphones, as they watched contently on their iPhone. At this point, it would take quite the disturbance to interrupt them from one of their favorite movies — no matter how many times they had seen it. 

“An announcement sounded overhead,” recalled Sipes. “I couldn’t really hear it over my movie, so I did not think much of it right away. My mom looked over at the both of us and said, ‘they are asking for medical personnel down the aisle.’ After this, we both noticed there was a few flight attendants carrying oxygen tanks down the aisle toward an older woman. So, we took out our headphones, looked at each other, and asked, ‘you ready?’ and then headed down in that direction. I would say she was about 10-12 aisles away from us. Once we got to the woman, we noticed she was unconscious, so our first reaction was one of concern. There was a respiratory therapist there when we responded who was providing oxygen to the patient. Another registered nurse (RN) responded as well shortly after we got there.”

“She was extremely pale and slumped in her seat,” said Zottnick. “Our first reaction was to begin asking what had happened to get some background information on what had led up to her losing consciousness. Josh and I both helped to assess her levels of consciousness and take her vitals. We both helped the respiratory therapist with administering oxygen and switching tanks when they became empty. I also assisted the woman with drinking some orange juice when she began to regain consciousness as we believed she was hypoglycemic due to not eating breakfast or lunch that day before the flight.” 

According to Zottnick an Sipes, the pilot was in constant contact with the flight attendants and assessing how the 70-year-old woman was doing, what led to the situation, and any underlying conditions she may have had. The flight attendants were recording the vitals from Zottnick and Sipes and getting them supplies, like blood pressure cuff, stethoscope, oxygen tanks and mask and other equipment as needed. During that time, the passengers were calm and respectful of the situation. Their education and training from University of Mary quickly kicked into high gear.

“I think that the basics of nursing ABCs (airway, breathing, circulation) kicked in when we responded,” said Zottnick. “We first checked to make sure that she was breathing on her own as well as assessed that she had a pulse. It seemed very natural for those instincts to kick in and for those to be the first things we assessed. At first, I was a bit in shock that this situation was taking place on our flight. I've never really experienced something like that on a plane before. Additionally, it seemed kind of crazy to me to be responding to this situation. It really put into perspective that I only have one semester left of school before I can independently take care of patients. It reminded me that it is my job to help people even in the most unexpected situations and in the most unexpected settings.” 

“It felt like an immediate adrenaline rush and like a switch flipped,” added Sipes. “I think the main thought that was going through my mind while I was helping her was ‘what can we do right now to keep this woman safe?’ I think everything we did revolved around the patient’s safety and keeping her free from harm the best we could. We monitored her blood pressure, pain level, heart rate, and respirations every 15 minutes. Overall, we stayed with her for an hour-and-a-half. We reported the findings back to the flight attendants and they kept a running document for EMS once they arrived. We also helped provide oxygen to the patient and checked her orientation once she woke up by asking her if she knew where she was at? What month it was? What the date was? Who was the president? We also questioned her husband about any health issues she might have had to try to get a background of her health history. After this we gave her orange juice and oxygen until her levels of consciousness improved and her vital signs returned to normal range.”

Sipes, Zottnick, and the other medical volunteers stayed with the woman until the plane landed in Bismarck where EMS came on board to lift her into a wheelchair and roll her into the airport.

“The crew gave an announcement overhead and thanked the ‘medical team’ for responding to the medical emergency. As we were walking back to our seats, people were clapping, patting us on our backs, and telling us thank you for doing what we do,” said Sipes.

Given their quick reaction time and thorough teamwork nursing the patient, fellow passengers probably thought Sipes and Zottnick were a married couple. Nope. It was their love for helping others that brought them together for the first time. Sipes had a tumor removed from his hand at Mayo Clinic when he was a senior in high school. The compassion he was treated with made him want to help others in the same manner and become a nurse. Zottnick’s grandmother loved being a nurse, but her biggest inspiration came from watching nurses care for her younger brother who spent six weeks in a neonatal intensive care unit after being born.

“Josh and I met the second semester of my sophomore year in nursing school at Mary,” remembers Zottnick. “Funny enough, we attended the same high school (Century in Bismarck), but never crossed paths until nursing school. Josh and I have been dating a little over a year.” 

After graduating in April and getting more experience, Zottnick wouldn’t mind being a traveling nurse so she can see other places, and Sipes could see himself working in the intensive care unit (ICU). But before they can get further into their nursing careers, they need to pass the NCLEX — National Council Licensure Examination — immediately after graduating. One hundred percent of Mary nursing graduates who took the NCLEX exam for the first time passed between April 2020 and May 2021, ranking it the No. 1 program in the country for the second time in three years by Mountain Measurement in 2021. Given the exceptional healthcare services they provided to this elderly woman on their flight, Zottnick and Sipes should feel confident passing the NCLEX with flying colors.

Anyone who wishes to learn more about any undergraduate or graduate programs can do so at, or, respectively, or by contacting an admissions representative at, or by calling (701) 355-8030. The University of Mary is one of only 15 Recommended Cardinal Newman Society Residential Colleges and Universities in the US.

About the University of Mary: True to its motto “lumen vitae”—The Light of Life—the University of Mary offers education for the whole of life through cutting-edge professional programs and graduate programs animated by moral courage and leadership in chosen professions and service to the community. A private, co-educational Catholic institution, the University of Mary welcomes students of all faiths and backgrounds.

A Christian, Catholic, Benedictine institution founded in 1959 by the Benedictine Sisters of Annunciation Monastery, Mary offers nearly 60 bachelor’s, 15 master’s, and five doctoral programs—in Business Administration, Education, Nursing Practice, Occupational Therapy and Physical Therapy. The 19-sport Athletic Department adheres to its Greatness Through Virtue mission under the governance of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA) conferences. With more than 3,800 students, Mary has locations in North Dakota, Montana, Arizona, Rome, Italy, as well as vibrant online offerings. For more information, visit

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