Being self-sufficient for months on end in a remote environment is the name of the game for doctors and medics serving in warships of the Royal Australian Navy. When it comes to facing and overcoming challenges of just about any kind, this has got to be one of the most demanding, and satisfying, fields to operate in.
This is what Dr Luke Edwards found when he joined the guided missile frigate HMAS Sydneyfor a five month deployment, which will see the ship embed with the US Navy’s 7th Fleet in Japan.
According to Dr Edwards, who holds the rank of Lieutenant, preparations for the deployment involved delivering around 300 vaccinations tailored to the health threats prevalent in the ship’s area of operations.
“We have to ensure we are prepared to counter the threat posed by diseases such as typhoid, influenza and meningococcal disease,” Dr Edwards said.
“We need to ensure the crew is fit for sea and has appropriate medication and medical support in place for the duration of the deployment. We also have to have the right type of equipment on board to deal with a large variety of incidents such as the amputation of fingers, concussion, sea sickness or other occupational injuries that are not as prevalent, or common, ashore.”
When Australian warships leave the Australian station and venture overseas, they may carry a medical officer as well as the usual compliment of two fully trained medics. Sydney is in the enviable position of carrying an additional medic under training.
“The task of our sickbay on board HMAS Sydney (and any Australian warship for that matter) contrasts sharply with that of a garrison support ashore or other civilian GP centres,” Dr Edwards said.
As well as a Doctor and three trained medics, the ship also operates a Ship’s Medical Emergency Team (SMET), which consists of twelve personnel who are trained in basic medical responses.
“My three medics are skilled in emergency management, triage and the training of the ship’s medical emergency team. Not many work places ashore have a dozen people ready at a moments notice to apply advanced first aid if a medical emergency occurs.”
Another significant difference between sea-borne medical staff and their shore-based civilian counterparts is that naval medics participate in a range of whole ship activities such as man overboard response, flight deck operations, resupply and damage control.
“All of the permanent medical staff aboard HMAS Sydney are new to our posts, which means we have to learn our way around the ship just as other sailors do when they join,” Dr Edwards said.
“Another attraction for a life at sea is that our medics do have some limited prescribing and treatment roles that extend beyond their usual shore duties.
“Having said that, we mostly attend to upper respiratory track infections, sports injuries, and occupational injuries to fingers, hands or heads caused by machinery or tools. And, of course, we need to attend to the crew’s regular medical examinations,” he said.
Naval medical staff get little respite while at sea. And they are just as prone to sea sickness as anyone else. They provide 24 hour coverage for the ship’s crew for the entirety of the deployment.
“We have capabilities on par with any emergency department ashore, although admittedly only for a short time. We have two beds and an operating/resuscitation table at our disposal,” Dr Edwards said.
“We are equipped with a significant range, and quantity, of medications and tools to be as independent as possible for months between resupply.”
Another interesting aspect of running a well-equipped medical facility at sea is that every day is different. This time HMAS Sydney’s Commanding Officer Commander Karl Brinckmann enlisted their help of the ship’s medical team to run his quit smoking challenge, and to subsequently reduce the number of smokers onboard. Nicotine patches and gums were ordered and issued to personnel in the interests of better health for their wallets and their bodies.
Of course, the ship’s sickbay can’t cope with every situation. “We are limited in the procedures we can perform at sea,” Dr Edwards explained. “Sometimes we are reliant on external support for seriously unwell sailors. In instances like that we transfer the patients ashore by boat or carry out an aeromedical evacuation by helicopter.”
Dr Edwards said he is able to perform minor dentistry if needed but would always seek guidance from ashore in the first instance.
HMAS Sydney‘s embed into the US Navy 7th Fleet George Washington Carrier Strike Group will allow the Royal Australian Navy to increase its knowledge and skills relating to air defence procedures, strike group integration and other high end defence capabilities. It will also expose the ship’s medical team to a wide range of differing perspectives and ways of operating through opportunities to cross decks onto US Navy warships.
Press Release, June 6, 2013; Image: Australian Navy