A cruise ship medevac: Not the usual travel experience

DSC07319Travel for us is about experiences.  Sometimes it’s the places we visit; sometimes the people we meet.  Other times it’s the food we eat or the wine we drink.  All of these form the experiences of the discerning traveler.  But sometimes, experiences are unexpected and not related at all to where you’re visiting.  A few months ago, while aboard the Oceania cruise ship Nautica, we witnessed a helicopter medevac as we sailed the Mediterranean off the coast of Greece.  And our thought was this: It could have been anyone of us.

It all started a few hours earlier as we sailed peacefully on our way from Malta toward Crete.  We had noted only peripherally (as you do when you’re enjoying the only day at sea in an itinerary-rich cruise) that the ship seemed to have sped up.  The onscreen information that continually streamed on a television channel from the bridge confirmed this suspicion, and we had also slightly altered our course.  We thought little of it.

Half an hour later the Captain took to the public address system to tell us that we had indeed altered our course so that we could get closer to mainland Greece in an effort to meet a helicopter from the Greek Coast Guard that would effect an evacuation at sea of a passenger who had fallen ill.  As we all know, cruise ships have well-equipped infirmaries, but there are some illnesses that require more than can be provided by these facilities, and by the single physician and nurse aboard.  This was evidently one of those occasions. And wouldn’t you know it?  It happened on the only day we weren’t in a port!

Evidently these kinds of thing happen more often than we might think – although in some fourteen cruises, we had never observed one.

An hour or so after the Captain’s address, we saw the helicopter approaching the ship.  The Captain had requested that everyone stay off the open decks for safety reasons – and we can only imagine that it would be an extra burden to the passenger and his wife to have onlookers curiously peering at them close-up.  Although some of the newer and much larger cruise ships these days have helipads, most don’t, requiring the helicopter to hover for a half an hour or more – as long as it takes to send down an emergency medical technician, secure the patient to the stretcher, hoist the patient up to the chopper, then hoist the technician and the passenger’s wife into the hovering beast.

Those of us with verandahs in the aft of ship had a view of the entire operation from beginning to end.  We were impressed with the efficiency of it all, and the coordination it took to get such an international rescue underway so quickly.  We were just happy that it wasn’t one of us.

Several days later, we happened upon the ship’s doctor on an elevator and Art, who in his past has actually done a stint as a ship’s doctor, enquired about the outcome of the medevac. The doctor said that the patient had evidently had a stroke and the medevac was successful.

Consumer Reports covered the subject of medical care at sea in a blog post last year.  Among the seven things they suggest you need to know are the following:

  1. The medical facilities at sea are not the same as your local hospital with respect to either equipment or staff.
  2. Medical care at sea is expensive. Be prepared for sticker shock, as they say.
  3. If a ship is 500 or more miles away from shore, “it’s unlikely the Coast Guard will respond.”[1]

As discerning travelers, we are always aware that these kinds of things can happen.  We try to minimize it by being healthy when we leave, and taking a few precautions while we’re away (such as hand-washing, staying away from buffets etc.).  Unexpected things do happen, though. We never leave home without travel medical insurance.  And we are always sure to read the fine print!

We’d like to share with you the video we took of the medevac.   Travel often and stay well!


[1] http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/news/2014/04/7-things-you-need-to-know-about-medical-care-on-cruise-ships/index.htm