Medical emergency at sea

A life and death drama unfolded in the Southern Ocean last December as Australian Customs and Fisheries personnel and AAD doctor, John Smith, fought to save the life of a Portuguese fisherman.

The drama began when the Customs and Fisheries patrol vessel, MV Oceanic Viking, was diverted from its patrol of Australia’s Exclusive Economic Zone, to respond to a medical distress call by the Spanish-flagged fishing vessel Arnela. On board was a 46-year-old fisherman with a bleed from a stomach ulcer.

‘By the time we picked him up, he’d been unconscious for three days,’ Dr Smith said

‘Things looked pretty grim and I was surprised when he responded to treatment. We managed to stabilise him, but he remained unconscious for the duration of the trip back to Perth.’

Dr Smith said the fisherman needed blood transfusions and fluid resuscitation. The crew of the Oceanic Viking donated blood, while Dr Smith, a Customs paramedic and a team of medical volunteers administered intensive care treatment.

Dr Smith, a general practitioner with previous experience as a doctor in Antarctica, said it was a challenging experience.

‘When I first got the call about the fisherman I was told he had gangrene of the leg. So I was busy looking up how to amputate legs and thinking that was the first thing I would have to do. Fortunately that wasn’t the case. But then we needed to get blood quickly, so I had to determine the fisherman’s blood type and grab people from the crew with matching blood types.

‘All of a sudden I was the doctor, nurse and orderly. I have renewed admiration and respect for intensive care nurses. The team I was working with were fantastic, but it was a very prolonged exercise. It was eight days before we got him to Perth Hospital.’

The medical team were fortunate to have a top quality medical facility aboard the Oceanic Viking – which was designed and equipped by the AAD’s Polar Medicine Unit – and round the clock telemedical support from the Polar Medicine Unit and its network of specialists.

The Minister for Justice and Customs, Senator Chris Ellison said the ability of the Oceanic Viking to respond to the emergency and provide high-level medical care was a reflection of the excellent preparation that had gone into the operation. Royal Perth Hospital intensive care staff also passed on their congratulations for a job well done.

The ship has since returned to duties patrolling the Southern Ocean for illegal fishing. The fisherman has returned to his family in Portugal; and Dr Smith has returned to his country practice in Gawler… at least for now.