A medical emergency aboard a boat at sea requires immediate attention to ensure the safety of the casualty and the crew in general. The skipper needs to know which crew members, if any, have had medical training or have a first aid qualification. All boats should carry first aid handbooks to help an untrained crew cope with a medical emergency.
Here are a few tips on what to do in the event of some of the most common medical emergencies at sea:
If you require immediate assistance, don’t delay, send a MAYDAY.
If you need urgent medical advice, make an all stations PAN PAN.
Before using the radio, write down a medical checklist with as much information as possible about the casualty so you can pass on details clearly and quickly. There is clearly a limit to what can be achieved over the radio, a better option is to be prepared and trained to be as self-reliant as possible, especially if you plan to be at sea for several days or weeks. If in doubt, do not hesitate to make contact with help ashore.
Minor cuts and bruises have a habit of happening frequently at sea and are easily dealt with. However if someone suffers a deep wound, a major blood vessel may be punctured and swift action needs to be taken to prevent severe blood loss. The casualty will most likely suffer from shock and need to be treated accordingly.
Step 1 Raise the wounded limb above the level of the heart to help reduce blood loss.
Step 2 Clean the wound with antiseptic lotion.
Step 2 Place a sterile dressing pad over the wound and hold it firmly in place.
Step 3 Secure the dressing in place with a bandage. If blood seeps out, add another sterile dressing pad over the first. Add further pads, if necessary. Do not over tighten the bandage as this could cut off the blood circulation and cause further problems.
Step 4 If bleeding is severe, treat for shock (see below) and call for medical help.
Step 5 Keep the wounded limb raised. After 10 minutes check the circulation is ok and the bandage is not too tight.
Internal bleeding may occur if a casualty has a fracture, crush injury, or receives a severe blow to their body. The casualty should be treated for shock, made comfortable and needs to be evacuated ashore as soon as possible.
Signs of internal bleeding:
- Cold, clammy skin.
- Rapid, weak pulse.
- Shallow, rapid breathing.
- Confused, restless, irritable.
- Bleeding from body openings.
- Abdomen may be tender and rigid.
- Signs of shock.
Minor burns and scalds are quite common at sea, especially for those working in a galley. These can be prevented by wearing protective clothing and footwear, but that is hardly going to be popular in hot summer temperatures.
Severe burns can cause deep tissue damage and there is a risk of shock for sufferers. Seek medical advice and be prepared to describe the area of the burn as well as the thickness of the skin affected. For the most severe cases you may need to administer CPR.
Treatment of burns:
Step 1 Immerse burnt area in cold water for a minimum of 15 minutes.
Step 2 Gently remove loose clothing but be careful not to remove clothing that has stuck to the skin.
Step 3 Apply sterile, non-stick dressings. Cling film can be used, but do not wrap tightly.
Step 4 Elevate the limb.
Step 5 Give antibiotics, painkillers and plenty of liquid with added sugar and a little salt.
Step 6 Treat for shock (see below).
Note: do not prick blisters, or cover facial burns or put ointments on broken skin.
If a crew member is suffering from severe sunburn, cool the affected skin with lukewarm water, then apply calamine, after sun lotion or aloe vera gel. Cover up with loose clothing and keep the sufferer in the shade and well hydrated.