How to Respond to a Medical Emergency on Board

30 November 2023 By Kate Lardy
medical emergency hospital

Kate got her start in the yachting industry working as crew. She spent five years cruising the Bahamas, Caribbean, New England, and Central America, then segued that experience into a career in marine journalism, including stints as editor of Dockwalk and ShowBoats International.

Capt. Kelly Gordon had just picked up charter guests in Nassau and set anchor at Norman’s Cay when a Mayday came over the VHF, a medical emergency involving a bad headache. “It wasn’t really clear via radio transmission whether it was a slip and fall or whether he had been diving or what it was, but I knew they needed help,” she says. She didn’t hesitate. Her engineer grabbed their medical kit, and she and the mate took off in the tender to meet the vessel anchored at Shroud Cay.

Once there, they found an unwell husband and a distressed wife on board their sailing catamaran on their maiden voyage. To Gordon, it was obvious what the problem was. “I could clearly see the man had a stroke. He had a massive headache, he couldn’t move, he was slurring his speech, his pupils wouldn’t dilate.”

She wasn’t alone in rendering assistance. On board with her were a physician and nurse practitioner. One other boat had the drug the man needed, and another had information about an air lift to Nassau. Her mate outside in the tender coordinated the radio transmissions between them while keeping her informed via UHF.

Despite the man’s dire condition, the wife, in her distress, couldn’t make a decision. Gordon volunteered to take him the 40-nautical mile run by boat to Nassau or get a plane into Norman’s Cay, but the wife wasn’t sure he needed to go at all, saying it might just be a headache or he may be dehydrated. “So, finally, I looked at her and I said, ‘Ma’am, this is bad. He needs to go,’” says Gordon.

When the wife further waffled about going by boat or by plane, Gordon informed her the plane was already on its way. They loaded the man onto a stretcher, into the tender, over to the runway at Norman’s, and into the baggage hold of a two-seater plane, and then Gordon made sure that the ground transportation in Nassau had arranged for an ambulance to meet the plane. When the man got to the hospital, he had to have emergency brain surgery.

This was Capt. Gordon’s third time responding to a medical emergency, and it was unique in that the wife apparently became incapacitated by the enormity of the situation and couldn’t make the life-saving decisions needed. And in Gordon’s assessment, the medical professionals on board with her were concerned about the liability. In fact, Gordon was the one who administered the drug.

“The Good Samaritan rule applies here,” says Miami-based maritime attorney Michael Moore. Good Samaritans assume a duty to exercise reasonable care. “Unfortunately, all parties who render assistance, even though they have no duty to do so, may become liable for any negligence they commit,” Moore says.

“The liability does concern me a bit,” says Gordon, who has her MEDPIC certification. “Really, it’s just more of an awareness. I couldn’t live with myself knowing that I didn’t do everything in my power to save someone’s life.”

Her number-one tip to fellow captains and crew is don’t be afraid to help. “In instances like this, there are two possible outcomes: One is that they might live; the other is that they won’t live.”

She also recommends onboard drills at least once a month. “Make sure that you’re going through different scenarios so that you start to at least become a little bit comfortable with what might happen. You also need to know where the equipment is on the boat. There’s nothing worse than, one, not knowing where all this stuff is stored; number two, once you have it, not knowing what’s in the bag; and, number three, not knowing how to use it.”

In places like The Bahamas Out Islands, yachts will generally have access to a higher level of medical support than the many amateur sailors there, including via telemedicine services such as MedAire. “We have had clients call us for this type of thing where they’re assisting someone else,” says Luc Hill of MedAire. While the service is most useful for the people on board that it holds medical records for, Hill says it is the company’s responsibility to assist whoever is providing the first aid. One particular benefit of the service is it provides clients with medical kits, so the on-call doctors can talk the caregiver through exactly what to use and where to find it in the bag.

“Everybody thinks that somebody else will do something, that somebody else will help,” says Gordon. “Or they say, ‘I don’t know what to do.’ But when you’re in the Out Islands, doing something is better than nothing.”

This article was originally published in the August 2023 issue of Dockwalk.


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