Self sufficiency, safety and medical treatment at sea

This past couple of days has been full of highs, lows and the unexpected. While I started my RYA on-line Day Skipper theory course here in Ottawa, my husband began his training in Antigua. But, he was quickly laid low by breathing issues. He is asthmatic, has only one functioning lung and was wondering if he had pneumonia. When he called me he was raspy and out of breath.

Needless to say, my enthusiasm for learning about the anatomy of a sail boat quickly took a back seat. I wasn’t thrilled that he was about to board a boat. I called his pulmonary specialist, our medical insurance provider, and encouraged him to go to the Mount St. John Medical Centre in Antigua – knowing that we’d be paying out of our own pockets for any attention he received there. I also contacted On Deck sailing to tell them that I was concerned about him, and his ability to sail.

Suffice it to say, he is feeling better now and discussed this with his sailing crew. But, the experience heightened my thinking about self-sufficiency, safety and medical needs at sea. And, so I contacted one of my neighbours who works for the Canadian Coast Guard.

To give you a bit of background about my neighbour – she is a dyed-in-the-wool sailor, having been around sail boats since she was a tot. She has travelled the world, working on cruise and container ships. She is the queen of self-sufficiency and grows all of her own produce. She can park an RV trailer on a hitch easily, without thought. In October, she went with us to the US Sail Boat Show in Annapolis, and was approached on a couple of occasions by strangers who assumed that she lived aboard. Maybe it was because she was carrying her baby in a front-facing carrier, or maybe other people can just see the ease she has around docks and sail boats.

Anyway, she offered me some comfort, saying, “You are not as alone on the water as you might think.” And, that vessels are required by international law to provide assistance if they are within hearing range as long as they don’t compromise the safety of their own crew. She encouraged me to research coast guard information for the areas that we were planning to travel. She said that the US Coast Guard is phenomenal and that no one is going to die on their watch.

She also said that people tend to be more prepared for medical emergencies at sea because they know they are not within reach of standard 911 services. She suggested that some ways to stay safe include: sailing along international shipping lines, and joining a convoy of sailors such as those organized by Jimmy Cornell. For example, the Blue Planet Odyssey – an around-world rally, organized by the Cornell’s, left on January 10th from Key West. I would have liked to have seen them depart. I love the idea of being part of a Cornell convoy, and am less keen on requiring rescue at sea.

In a previous post, I discussed that one of my children has life-threatening food allergies. If we are to sail, then it’s not enough for me to simply administer an EpiPen if he has a severe allergic reaction. Children with my son’s level of allergy can die in as little as five minutes. At sea, I need to have more training in administering secondary-level treatment, which is one of the reasons why I’m considering taking the 10-day MITAGS-PMI Medical Person in Charge course. As it happens, I met with my son’s allergist today and discussed that I would like to learn more about the secondary-level treatments required to treat anaphylaxis, possibly even administering intravenous drugs as need be.

He thought a lay-person could successfully treat anaphylaxis in all but the most severe cases, where intubation would be required. He said ideally, my son would be treated in a hospital environment. That said, he felt that out son was in good hands. We are vigilant about what he eats, and have not had any mishaps since his first near-death experience after ingesting a single pistachio nut.

Almost losing someone – particularly your own child – forever changes your outlook on life and how quickly things can take a bad turn. It was really nice to have the support and confidence of our allergist. I’d like to think that I’m an optimist, but I don’t take much for granted, particularly where health and safety are concerned.

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