Being a cruise ship doctor may seem like the medical profession’s dream gig— and in a lot of ways it is. But the job comes with an incredible amount of responsibility: you see everything from sprained ankles to potentially deadly heart attacks. You’re responsible for the lives of thousands of passengers and crew. And for many people, having a great vacation means never, ever seeing you.
It’s a job Dr. John Bradberry knows well. A double board-certified emergency medicine and family medicine physician, Bradberry spent seven years as a ship doctor for a major cruise line and another seven years as that cruise line’s medical director. Long story short, he’s seen just about all there is to see at sea. Here, Dr. Bradberry shares with Yahoo Travel what it’s like to be a real-life ship’s “Doc.”
Dr. Bradberry dishes about his years as a cruise ship doctor. (Photo: John Bradberry)
1.) We really are doctors — and good ones — despite what some people might think
Passengers think the medical center on board a ship is maybe a Band-Aid station. In a passenger area or in an elevator, a passenger would look at my nametag [which says] “Ship’s Physician.” And it’s like, “So what do you do? Treat a lot of seasickness? Ha ha!” And it’s not the case. Credentialing guidelines for cruise ship doctors require extensive experience and expertise in primary care, including emergency medicine.
2.) We work hard, but we also get to enjoy the benefits of cruising
Any doctor who anticipates that the practice of cruise ship medicine is tantamount to a paid vacation is going to be sorely disappointed. Cruise ship doctors have an immense amount of responsibility on their shoulders. That cruise ship doctor is responsible for the health and well-being and lives of 5,000 people; that’s a small town. A physician must be on call 24 hours a day whenever the ship is at sea. So it’s not a paid vacation by any means.
There is time off, though. And during the time-off periods, the ship’s doctors can go up to the main deck where a lot of the activities are and intermingle with the guests. If the ship is in port and the doctor’s off-duty, they’re allowed to go shoreside and go exploring, go to the beach, go on shoreside excursions. All- expenses-paid travel, and you get a salary on top of it. Free room and board is included. In some ways, the ship’s doctors get paid to do what the passengers are paying to come and do.
If the doctor’s off-duty, you may see him or her come ashore with you. (Photo: Thinkstock)
3.) Yes, it’s like “The Love Boat” — kinda
There are a lot of romances… among the crew. You have a thousand mostly young adult crewmembers living, working, and socializing together, and human nature will take its course.
In true “Love Boat” fashion, I met my wife on board. She was one of the ship’s nurses. She’s half-British, half-Greek, tall, black hair and big sparkling blue eyes. And I just happened to be in the medical center when she walked in. And when she spoke, she had that British accent. Within 8 to 10 seconds of laying eyes on her, I thought, “This might get complicated.” So we’re now married with two kids; I think that qualifies as a “complicated.”
4.) Despite “Doc’s” womanizing on “The Love Boat,” there’s no hanky-panky between real-life cruise ship doctors and passengers
Back in the 1970s, Doc from “The Love Boat” was a ladies man. Real-life ship doctors today aren’t quite like that. (Photo: Getty Images)
The length of time [we’re at sea is] anywhere from three days to a week. There really isn’t time to get to know passengers. Unlike what might have been depicted on “The Love Boat,” medical officers are allowed in a passenger’s cabin only when responding to a medical emergency. Passengers are not allowed in crew areas, including crew quarters, at any time. There’s zero tolerance for that; even officers will be terminated for bringing a passenger into restricted areas of the ship.
5.) If you’re going to have a heart attack, a cruise ship isn’t a bad place to do it
I know of multiple people who are alive today because they had cardiac arrest on board a cruise ship rather than at home. At home, the ambulance might take 10-15 minutes or longer to arrive. By then, it could be too late. On board, doctors and nurses are typically only several minutes away from any location on board ship.
Dr. Bradberry has treated a lot of heart attacks at sea. (Photo: Thinkstock)
6.) Speaking of which: Beware of the casino
There was a gentleman who hit the jackpot in the casino on a slot machine. And the excitement and the adrenaline surge of that precipitated a heart attack. He actually collapsed in the casino. And so we got there and he was actually in cardiac arrest. He was lying on the floor and I’m trying to intubate him and I can still hear all the other slot machines all around me jingling. Here we had a cardiac arrest patient, I’m doing CPR, resuscitating him, and in the process of intubating the patient, and people ten feet away are still playing the slots!
Heart attack or not, slot play stops for no one. (Photo: Thinkstock)
Security responded and started getting people to back away. So we took him down to the medical center and put him on life support. We had a good outcome. By the time we got to our destination, he was off life support, sitting up, and he went off in a wheelchair. And it was just ironic that his total medical bill came out to within a couple of dollars of what his jackpot winning was! He didn’t mind; he was just so happy to be alive. So it’s just another example that with gambling the house always wins!
7.) People jumping overboard: doctors have to deal with that too
One individual was having relationship problems. He broke up with his partner so he decided to go on a cruise to make himself feel better. Sure enough, when a person goes on a cruise ship, his problems come with him. He still felt despondent and depressed. And then to make things worse, he went into the casino and lost a couple thousand dollars. That was the final note; he decided he was done. It was at night and he went and he jumped overboard.
The best possible outcome in a “passenger overboard” situation: they end up in the ship’s medical center. (Photo: Thinkstock)
He jumped from the front of the ship, which means he was basically going to get sucked under the ship and go through the propellers. So a security guard happened to see it and radioed the bridge: “MAN OVERBOARD! STARBOARD SIDE!” The deck officers train for this and they knew how to respond. They turned the steering wheel of the ship in the direction [of the jumper]. That swung the back of the ship around and away from the person who’d gone overboard. And then they lowered the lifeboat and he was rescued. He had jumped from like eight stories into the water, so we had him in the medical center. He explained that after he jumped, he had enough time to reconsider what he had done and to change his mind about it — all before landing in the water. He said, “Doc, when I hit that water I swam like a dolphin away from the ship because I knew I was going to get pulled under.” The following day we transferred him shoreside for psychological support.
8.) The three things that tick off cruise ship doctors the most?
1. [People] going shoreside and renting a moped after doing tequila shots and not wearing a helmet. I see it all the time; it can have tragic results. 2. Passengers with unrealistic expectations about on-board medical capabilities. Some have complained, for example, because only regular X-ray is available and not CT or MRI scans. And… 3. Health care-related decisions being made by those with no health care qualifications. I recall more than one of my valid healthcare-related recommendations being overruled by a management official whose expertise was in hospitality. No lives were endangered but it was very frustrating.
Wanna drive a cruise ship doctor crazy? Show them this picture and tell them this is a passenger on their ship. (Photo: Thinkstock)
9.) We look for pregnant women
After about 20 - 24 weeks typically cruise lines do not allow pregnant women to sail. The embarkation staff are trained to watch for that. If they see someone who looks obviously pregnant they’ll intervene and they’ll have someone from medical come off the ship and investigate.
Pregnant? Cruise ship personnel are watching out for you. (Photo: Thinkstock)
The reason for that: after about 24 weeks, if a baby is delivered prematurely and has access to a pediatric intensive care unit, they’re viable. They can be saved. But on a cruise ship [if a baby’s delivered at] 24-32 weeks or so, the odds are they’re not going to make it. So we don’t want a pregnant woman to come on board and maybe have a pre-term delivery where that baby is doomed whereas if that baby was on land it would have had a good chance of survival.
10.) There is a morgue on board
Any licensed physician can pronounce a patient dead. Then the patient, the same as in a shoreside hospital, is placed in a body bag and is taken to the morgue. The ships have a morgue on board. No, it’s not the walk-in cooler where they store food; it’s a proper morgue and it’s specifically for that purpose. It’s not used that often but occasionally it is.
The morbid truth: cruise ships do have to deal with the occasional death. (Photo: Thinkstock)
11.) The best part of being a cruise ship doctor
I found it very rewarding to be able to be out at sea and have the medical training and knowledge, and the medical equipment and supplies on board, to be able to literally save a person’s life.
12.) And the worst part
Being away from home. After months of being deployed you get a little bit homesick. Then when you get home you start missing the cruise ship. I remember I would be out to sea. I was an officer on board. I had a cabin steward; it was kind of like living in a hotel. I’d go into the officers’ dining room; it’s like sitting down at a restaurant. It’s all included. I didn’t pay for anything. And my laundry was done for me. Then I would get home and the first couple of days it’s like, “What am I gonna eat?“ Then I’d go out, run errands, come back midmorning, and the wet towel is lying on the bathroom floor where I’d left it. My bed’s not made. I’m like, “What is this?” And then I go, “Oh, it’s reality. That’s what it is. ” So it’s always a good feeling to get home. But then I was always counting the days to get back on board the ship.
13.) When you stop being a cruise ship doctor, you miss it… kinda
Do I miss cruise ship life? Absolutely. But, where do I go for vacation? To the mountains!