All at sea
Posted on 14 January 2013 by Susannah George
The horizon lurches horribly over the grey-green sea as I try to keep my eyes focused on the distant sliver of English coastline.
A stranger offers to hold my toddler every time I look as though I’m going to throw up. Somewhere inside the ferry my four-year-old is puking repeatedly into the narrow aperture of a paper sick bag.
I feel so ill that I have left my husband looking after her. Another woman assumes he is a single parent and is helping him. Other people assume they are a couple.
I can barely stand up as I hear the tannoy; a member of the crew is calling for the assistance of a doctor. I stagger back inside, and deposit my youngest child on my husband’s lap. Leaving my family in an untidy heap, I make my way to the bar area and announce my presence. I feel obliged to volunteer, but am far from confident.
A few years previously, immediately post-membership, I reached the peak of my general clinical knowledge. At that time my CV boasted ALS, ATLS and MRCP — wonderful qualifications that conferred a sort of omniscience.
In the intervening seven years, specialty training has somewhat narrowed my focus. I approach this emergency in a duty-bound I-suppose-I-am-better-than-nothing kind of way.
When I arrive, I am pleased to see that I am not the only person to respond to the call.
‘I’m an ENT surgeon,’ announces the other passenger who was willing to own up to possession of a medical degree.
‘And I’m a dermatologist,’ I say by way of introduction.
In that same comedy moment, we realise that what the patient actually needs is a dentist. Under these circumstances ENT probably just about trumps dermatology, but it is useful that we are both there.
With a few hours to go on the journey, I am glad it is nothing serious, nothing requiring too much thought, or complex clinical decision making, or returning to England. My first foreign holiday in seven years is not aborted after only two hours.
So what are the rules for helping out in an emergency? I’ve known for as long as I can remember that you must make sure that it is safe to approach. The second question is: am I competent to assist? Well, that depends on the nature of the emergency, and you don’t know until you get there. I could also add: am I fit to do anything?
As I return to my family, my husband is holding the children who have since been sick all over everything. The women who came to his assistance earlier are probably wondering where I’ve been. I take our smallest and dab her anorak ineffectually.
Susannah George is a specialty trainee 5 in Brighton
Education and training
medical education and training
accident and emergency