Medical Matters at sea
OK... bring me your sick & dying....
I've had 8 days First Aid training!

...after that we had to learn "on the job".

All the ships were equipped with a medical locker which was stocked to the instructions as laid down by the Board of Trade (BOT) it even had a copy of the Shipmasters Medical Guide which had pictures to assist diagnosis and advice on the best treatments to apply.   The person in charge of the medicine locker was either the Captain or the Chief Steward who did not always have much medical knowledge other than that which they had picked up over the years in the "school of hard knocks".

Once when the" London Pride"  was in Mount Stewart dry dock in Cardiff we were visited by a school that had adopted us under the Ship Adoption Society Scheme, which was to widen the pupils interest in geography etc.  When the Chief Steward was showing the children the medical locker on nimble fingered boy asked what were these for holding up a condom pack they were finger stalls said the Chief Steward quickly shutting the draw.

The main contents of the locker were:

1.Black jollop - a drink that terminated anyone's constipation problems.

2.White mixture - a thick milk of magnesia type of drink which sorted out problems of indigestion.

3.Anti malaria tablets which tasted most foul but which we had to take if we were going to certain areas, a full thirty day course was mandatory.

4.Board of Trade lime juice, it was concentrated, very strong and it prevented scurvy, just as in the days of sail  In later years the practice was discontinued as a result of better diet and food being better preserved with the benefit of ships fridges.

5.Omnipon, a morphine type drug was kept in each lifeboat first aid kit.

6.Laudanum an opiate type drug which I was ordered by the Captain to give him after he had enjoyed a boozy session to help him come around.   It was five or was it ten drops of laudanum in a glass topped off with Worcestershire sauce and tomato sauce.  It always did the trick.

7.The locker also maintained a stock of ointments, salves, bandages, plasters, splints, truss and salt tablets.

If we had a serious medical problems at sea then we would radio All Ships (CQ) to contact Royal Navy vessels who carried doctors and they could either give advice or do an intership transfer if surgery was the only option.Alternatively we would contact large passenger vessels.  When in Aden we had a "Secunny"(an Indian helmsman) seriously ill and we contacted the doctor on the "Gothic" the passenger vessel on which Queen Elizabeth was returning from her tour of Australia in 1953.

We all carried World Health Organisation Cards (WHO) but many countries would ignore that record book and  would insist on giving us their inoculations for yellow fever etc.  We started to feel that were pin cushions or guinea pigs.  Once as an apprentice I was told to round up all fifty three crew and get them to the smoke room so we could all be vaccinated. I thought this was going to take some time so I will get myself done first and did so.

The doctor had only brought three needles with him and it took some two hours for me to produce the last man who was the Indian deck sweeper(called a  Topas).  He was terrified of the doctor and I had to drag his screaming into the smokeroom.  The last needle was blunt by now and I saw the doctor hold the syringe in the palm of his hand at head height before stabbing the man's upper arm and on the third attempt he was successful.  Topas  was now in a state of collapse and the crew had to half carry him, toes dragging along the deck, back to his cabin.

The only times when I needed medical attention were:

1.As apprentice on the London Integrity I was using paint stripper to remove varnish from the teak wood rails and instead of working from up wind I worked down wind and the caustic liquid went into my eyes. Despite washing them immediately and putting in eye drops I was blind for three days until all the swelling had gone down.
2.As Third Office I became very tired after the slightest exertion and I saw and Indian doctor when we reached the next port, Mena.  He diagnosed Pellagra - the European  form of Beri Beri a vitamin B deficiency.  He gave me thirty foul meaty smelling tablets and within one week I was cured. 

My wife Valerie was on the London Majesty with me in 1962 when she needed help.  We were in Skaramanga dry dock when Valerie found a lump on her chest, so I got the Captain's consent for the Agent to find a doctor in Athens who would give Valerie a check up.

The check up was in his private surgery and having decided that the lump was thick bone and no problem, to be sure he got Valerie to stand in front of an x-ray machine, he called me round to his side and showed me what he had found on the machine that showed live movement x-rays.  We could see that Valerie had a round black disk the size of half a crown at the bottom of her left lung.  He said no problem at the moment but better keep an eye out on it.

In 1967 Valerie felt that she was getting short of breath when she was four months pregnant with Janet, Neil at this time being one year old and I was working on Liverpool docks.  Valerie went for a check up and within about a day was in Broadgreen Hospital having her left lung removed due to a congenital lung problem due to her premature birth.

Examples of medical problems encountered

Captain George Fox had a stroke prior to berthing at Perth Amboy.  We got him to hospital but he died before we returned to the States.

Chief Officer George Putt and others, delirium tremens (DT's)

Second Officer Dave Witherick, circumcision required.

Chief Steward Graham.  Claimed to be a real seaman when he caught VD for the seventh time.

Chief Steward Coull - hepatitis- landed ashore in Santos hospital but he died.

Chief Engineer Waterfall - taken ill at Melbourne where he wanted to leave the ship.  He was taken ill but we suspect that he was suffering from codeine poisoning.

Third Engineer Priest's young  son fell through the wooden companionway steps on to No 5 tank top and was found to be concussed when take to Falmouth Hospital.   A good job the tank lid was shut at the time or he would have fallen another 40 feet to the bottom !

What would now be called industrial injuries of dermatitis, cuts, bruises, sprains.

Additionally the Chief Steward at the 09.00 sick muster had the following to diagnose and treat.

1.Indian crew  = tuberculosis and/or glaucoma.

2.Headache  = cold, flu, excess alcohol.

3.Stomach ache = Chill, bad  food eaten ashore (usually fish), excess alcohol.

4.Runs = any of the above.

5.Heat stroke = take your salt tablets and drink more water.

6.Sun stroke = put this calamine on and cover yourself up in future.

7.Frost bite = grease up and take a tot of rum , but wear more clothes next time.

8.Toothache = wear and tear of age.  Or in my case all my fillings fell out after having my face frozen when anchoring in the Dardenelles in a winter gale from Russia.  When I came into the accommodation over the next hour I started to thaw out and my teeth and their fillings expanded at different rates and all my fillings fell out one by one.

Shore side doctors those who attend ships crews at any hour of the day or night are not always the best of their profession, e.g. had we not been treating Dave Witherick with antibiotics for a week and taken the radioed advice from "CRIM" doctors in Rome  I believe Dave Witherick would have died from the medical treatment of the Ceuta doctor.