When Doctor Steve Went On Patrol

By Jack A. Eckert

Back in the old days we carried a Public Health Service doctor on all northern weather patrols. The purpose of carrying the doctor was not necessarily to take care of the crew, but to be available if a nearby ship needed medical assistance.

Every doctor, regardless of specialty was required to make one ocean station patrol on a Coast Guard Cutter. Many dreaded this experience and, while their fear and apprehension is understandable, most took it in their stride once the initial period of mal de mer was over. These fellows wore the same officer uniforms that we did except for the buttons, cap insignia and the insignia above their stripes on their sleeves. We wore Navy type uniforms at the time. Uniforms do not a sailor make!

The doctors that rode the cutters were mostly specialists. I remember one patrol where we had a "skin doctor" who in the thirty some odd days we were gone rid the entire ship of every mole and wart on every sailor aboard, captain included. We prayed that we never would get an overzealous proctologist. Sometimes we would have a heart specialist, an eye, ear, nose and throat specialists (they were good at diagnosing flu's and colds) and so forth. We never saw a gynecologist, as we didn't have girls aboard. Come to think of it I don't remember a baby doctor either.

Some of the doctors mixed well with the officers and sometimes some of the crew. Others would either sit in the Wardroom and read or remain in their staterooms. One doctor didn't even know the name of the ship’s corpsman because he seldom was anywhere near sickbay.

Doctor Steve, whose last name escapes me, was an ophthalmologist—that is, an expensive eye doctor. He was a personable guy who checked out everybody's eyes as the patrol progressed. He joined in the evening wardroom poker game (I'll not mention the name of the cutter) after the movie and wasn't a bad player. We all liked Doctor Steve.

Doctor Steve didn't like the duty too well. Most people don't like a wintertime "Bravo" as it is usually rough as a cob. Unlike most he didn't get seasick.

A few of us conspired to crank on Doctor Steve, just for the heck of it. About the time the relief cutter got underway a message showed up that the doctor they were carrying was having health problems. Every day we got a SITREP (situation report) discussing the condition of the relief ship doctor. Every day it became grimmer.

As per custom the relief ship pulled into Argentia, Newfoundland to refuel and reprovision before heading north to relieve us. We received a message saying that the doctor was too ill to go on station and that the Public Health people were requested to supply another doctor in his place. Just as the cutter left Argentia, we received a message that they sailed without a doctor aboard.

Oh, what to do now. Doctor Steve who was closely following the events through the radio messages, was beginning to get concerned. By international treaty the northern ocean station vessels must carry a doctor.

It is a three or four day run to Ocean Station Bravo from Argentia, depending on the weather. This provided the time to have lengthy discussions about what procedures we would use to transfer Dr. Steve to the relief ship in the event we received orders to do so. He had watched us swap mail and movies in heavy sea conditions by wrapping everything in canvas to waterproof it as much as possible, tie it on one of the rafts, and carefully drop it off the stern and move away so the relieved cutter could pick it out of the water with boat hooks and "Norwegian Steam." He was on the bridge wing watching us rise up out of the water and the relieved ship actually go out of sight, even though they were only about a quarter of a mile away. He was no sailor but he understood what he saw that day.

We discussed the possibility of sending him over in a ship’s lifeboat if the seas were only 20 or 30 feet high. Another suggestion was to use a high line and send him across that way. If the seas were over 30 feet we would have to waterproof him and send him over on the raft with the movies. These discussions went on at every meal and even at the poker game.

As the time for relief drew near, Dr. Steve became more and more concerned. He visited the balloon shack to get the "weather birds" give him a prediction for wind and sea conditions on that day. He frequented the bridge asking for the same information. The poor devil looked like he hadn't slept in a week.

As the relief ship came into view, we ran a couple of joint exercises, after which Dr. Steve was piped to the bridge. He arrived as pale as a ghost, with hollow, sunken eyes and asked the OOD which method they were going to use to transfer him. Seas were a little sloppy but he was told to get ready for, after the noon meal, he was being high lined over.

He evidently had packed everything as well as he could but never asked about transferring his gear. He came into the wardroom with several things including his medical bag and other medical equipment, ready to go.

It was noon and both ships were doing a joint RAWIND (chasing the balloon) together. The captain joined us for the meal and displaced the exec., who moved and sat opposite of the doctor.

"Doctor, are you ready?" asked the exec.

"I wish I didn't have to do this. This is pretty scary!" he replied.

"Did you ever think you would be in this position when you came aboard last month," asked one of the other officers.

"My God, no! I would have never come aboard this damned ship or any other ship for that matter," said the Doctor.

"Dr. Steve, we have really enjoyed having you with us. By God, I think we have made a sailor of you," said the captain.

"Not really what I want to be," said Dr, Steve.

"As a matter of fact Dr. Steve, we like you so well, we are going to keep you on board with us for, you see, they had a doctor on board all of the time," said the captain.

Dr. Steve looked baffled at first, trying to comprehend what the captain just told him. Gradually the color began to return to his face and the grimace left, replaced by a slight smile of relief.

And then the entire wardroom, all of the officers not on watch, the weather birds, and stewards, got a good hearty laugh and then applauded the good doctor. He was a good sport about the whole thing, and that night he lost at poker.

 

All of the messages shown to him were dummied up for that purpose. Everybody, as they got involved in this ruse, played the game. To this day, I don't know whether Doctor Steve was really fooled or played along with the joke. He'll never tell.

 

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