Written by Vanessa Santilli in The Medical Post on March 17
For over 20 years, Dr. Dan Ezekiel has worked as a cruise ship physician, travelling to Antarctica, the Caribbean, South America and the Mediterranean in his practice on the water. “I’ve been to parts of the world I probably wouldn’t have seen otherwise,” said the Vancouver-based physician. Employed by Holland America, Norwegian Cruise Line and Quark Expeditions (which offers adventure cruises to the North Pole, Arctic and Antarctic aboard ice-breakers and strengthened vessels), Dr. Ezekiel has pulled six-month stretches on ships that hold up to 3,000 people, through he now prefers one-month time stints on smaller vessels.
While some physicians, like Dr. Ezekiel, complete cruise line work sporadically alongside operating a regular practice, others, like Dr. Edward Dees, are at sea practically full time. A senior ship physician with Carnival Cruise Lines, Dr. Dees supervises a medical team in the delivery of health care to everyone on board the vessel under his purview. “The allure of life and work at sea comes naturally to some, but it’s an acquired taste to others,” he said. “But there’s the opportunity to grow beyond your present bounds and to take on the adventure of life on the high seas, visiting distant ports and having unforgettable, rewarding experiences.”
If you’re considering using your medical expertise to become an MD aboard a cruise ship, here are five tips to help you decide whether you’re cut out for life on a boat.
- Being social is essential
If you have hopes of doing your work and then fading into the background, think again. It’s typical on large cruise ships for the chief medical officer to host a table at dinner, inviting both patients and people they’ve met on deck to join them. “Passengers want to know what it’s like being a cruise ship doctor and they want to hear some stories,” he Dr. Ezekiel. On one particularly memorable night in the dining hall, he saved a passenger from choking at a neighbouring table. “I jumped to action and actually got a standing ovation,” he said. “Everybody liked the fact that there was a doctor on board, and at dinner.”
Outside of meal times, people like to talk to the officers, so being friendly and approachable is just part of the job. “They find it’s an exciting life,” Dr. Ezekiel added. “Even after dinner, you may want to go watch a show or listen to some music, but if you’re wearing your uniform, people will come up to you and start asking you about yourself and your experiences.”
- It’s not a vacation
Dr. Dan Zak, medical director for Quark Expeditions, wants the physicians he hires to have an enjoyable time, “but they need to realize it’s not a vacation,” he said. “They’re on call 24 hours a day for pretty much anything.” Cruise ship doctors need to be easily available at all times, and even be accessible well into the night when they may be called into action. “All doctors experience this during their training, but as we get older, we can become less able to rouse ourselves in the night,” Dr. Zak added.
According to an online Carnival job description, physicians are allowed to travel with their families, but “captain’s meetings, safety meetings, drills…(mean) your time with your family might not be what you or your family expected.”
- Grace under pressure
For doctors working on cruise ships, the ability to stay cool and think on your feet is essential. “I once had a patient lose eyesight in one eye,” said Dr. Simon Bryant, a Canmore, Alta., doctor who’s travelled to both the Arctic and Antarctic as a cruise ship MD. “It wasn’t possible to evacuate the patient. But it turned out well in the long-term.” He added that it’s wise to expect to treat ailments that range from the minor to the major. “Whenever there’s open water, motion sickness is common.”
For Quark Expeditions’ Dr. Zak, his primary hiring requirement is for the candidate to be an actively practising emergency medicine physician. However, even if you’re not seeking work on an expedition-style cruise ship, a background in emergency medicine is an asset.
- Homebodies need not apply
For a cruise ship doctor, the best part of the job can also be the worst part: Being on long trips means you’re away from friends and family for a lengthy period. “I love to see these places…but I miss my home, so it’s a double-edged sword,” said Dr. Ezekiel. Because of this, he now takes on shorter contracts. Carnival Cruise Lines’ Dr. Dees emphasized that anyone considering this type of work must have a flexible lifestyle. “You need personal circumstances that could accommodate weeks away from home base without being distracted,” he said.
- Different ship, different experience
There is no standard cruise ship experience for an onboard MD. “This is one end of the spectrum in cruise medicine,” said Dr. Bryant, referring to polar cruises with a maximum of 160 passengers of which he has been a part through Quark Expeditions. “The other end would be very large ships with 5,000 to 6,000 passengers.”
Indeed, myriad types of cruise ship opportunities do exist and, as such, its possible to zero in on details like demographics and vessel size. “You can essentially pick your preferred patient population based on the destination, the type of ship and the company,” said Dr. Ezekiel.