Confessions of a maritime doctor

Confessions of a maritime doctor
Dr Ravin Nair oversees Gleneagles Hospital as its assistant medical director.

Two to three times each month, he gets an urgent call on his mobile phone.

Dr Ravin Nair hops on a taxi boat and 30 minutes later, he reaches a ship out at sea where he tends to a seaman's injury or affliction. In some cases, he faces a corpse.

When he is not working on maritime emergencies, the 43-year-old oversees Gleneagles Hospital as its assistant medical director. He's also the head honcho of Parkway Shenton's new Maritime Medical Services, which was started a month ago.

At sea, he works fast as the ships need to depart from Singapore waters on time. This means he only has a couple of hours to save a life or treat a disease.

"I don't only treat the patient. I have to look at the environment these sailors are in too, to make sure that no one else falls ill. In a sense, I'm treating the ship," he says. He gets calls for a variety of conditions common among sailors - trauma from falls, injuries sustained while working, or heart and lung problems.

In one incident east of the mainland four years ago, Dr Nair had to attend to a seaman who suffered a finger injury while operating a grinder. Dr Nair tells The New Paper on Sunday: "His right ring finger broke off and his shipmates found it. He wanted me to reattach the finger." It was a procedure that would cost between $20,000 to $30,000, so when the ship captain found out about the cost, he did something Dr Nair could not believe. "He told me that it was too expensive. So, he took the finger from his crew and threw it into the sea," he says. "Then, he turned to me and said, 'stitch it up.'" Dr Nair did as instructed.

The procedure cost $800. Each time they are deployed, the rescue team - comprising Dr Nair and one or two paramedics - assesses if the patient is fit to continue the journey. He says: "The next doctor that the ship crew sees could be weeks or months later, depending on the journey. If he can't continue, I will have to take him back to land." This applies to terminally ill patients and those who are having a heart attack or suffering from brain death, the latter of which requires the patient be put on life support.

Occasionally, patients are airlifted back to the hospital by a privately chartered helicopter or taken back to land via boat to a waiting ambulance. He's also been called upon to certify death when seafarers drown. Sometimes, he encounters malingering sailors, who do all they can to get back to shore. He says: "About two years ago, I was called on board a bunkering ship to treat a patient who had a common cough and cold. The ship moored beside a cargo ship which was around five metres taller than it."

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