About the author:
Joanna Nell was born in the UK and studied medicine at Cambridge and Oxford universities. Her short fiction has won multiple awards and has been published in various journals and literary anthologies. A former ship’s doctor and now a GP with a passion for women’s health and care of the elderly, Joanna is drawn to writing character-driven stories for women in their prime, creating young-at-heart characters who are not afraid to break the rules and defy society’s expectations of ageing. Her first novel, THE SINGLE LADIES OF JACARANDA RETIREMENT VILLAGE, was a national bestseller. Joanna lives on Sydney’s Northern Beaches with her husband and two teenage children.
Words by Joanna Nell
Back in my late twenties, after several gruelling years as a junior doctor and with a failed relationship under my belt, I ran away to sea. I had no idea what to expect but to be honest, I saw working as a ship’s doctor as a bit of a holiday.
The ship – comparatively small by modern standards – seemed enormous to me when I boarded in Singapore. With 2000 crew and passengers on board, she was the size of a small town. As the assistant doctor, or ‘Baby Doc’, I was responsible for the crew while the senior doctor cared for the paying passengers. After hours, the ‘Baby Doc’ was on call for the entire ship. In addition to the two doctors, there were five nursing staff and a fully equipped hospital complete with x-ray machine, blood analyser and a mortuary that doubled as a champagne locker.
Finding my way around the labyrinth of the ship was my first challenge, followed by working out which of three different uniforms I was supposed to wear. On formal evenings, the female officers wore long skirts, white silky blouses and a floppy black tie affectionately known as a ‘dead bat’. This wasn’t the most practical of attire as I discovered whilst resuscitating a passenger on the floor of the crowded dining room.
It’s fair to say we worked hard and played hard. The medics were a small team but after working 24hrs a day side by side we became close. Some of those friendships have lasted a lifetime.
The work was varied and challenging. The ship’s hospital was essentially a floating emergency department, albeit one without a surgeon, ICU or access to second opinions. Ships’ doctors need to be resourceful, dealing with everything from seasickness to broken bones, heart attacks and trauma. Sometimes days away from land, we had to treat whatever presented. On one occasion, I drew blood from the bellboy and after screening, transfused it straight into a haemorrhaging passenger.
Officers were allowed to use passenger facilities such as the gym, restaurants and spa however, and on my days off, I often volunteered to escort shore tours. Landing by helicopter on an Alaskan glacier, scuba diving in the Caribbean or riding horses through the Costa Rican rain forest certainly beat the ward rounds and outpatient clinics of the past.
Within two years, I’d seen most of the world and was having the time of my life. But there was one more surprise to come. Like the young single Evelyn, I fell for a man in uniform. And like my protagonist, I married my handsome officer, marking the end of my sea days and the beginning a whole new adventure ashore.