Charting a Nautical Course as a Ship's Doctor

Physician's Money Digest, May 15 2003, Volume 10, Issue 9

Physician'sMoney Digest


Have you ever wondered what the life of a cruiseship physician is like? To find out, spent some time speaking with JohnBradberry, MD, a cruise ship doctor for CarnivalCruise Lines. Although not quite a series of episodes, Dr. Bradberry points to his experienceswith the cruise line as the most enjoyable inhis medical career.

About 10 years ago, Dr. Bradberry went on acruise as a paying passenger. When introduced to theship's senior officers, he was intrigued by the formaluniform worn by the ship's doctor.

For the next 5 years, Dr. Bradberry worked oncruise ships part-time, filling in for physicians onvacation once or twice a year. He found each assignmentto be increasingly fulfilling. Then, 2 years ago,Carnival's medical director Steve Williams asked himto join the crew full-time.


"Steve told me his goal was to make Carnival theprovider of the best medical care of any cruise line inthe world, and he wanted my help in turning thingsaround," Dr. Bradberry recalls. "When you think ofhow many millions of people go on cruises, it was achance to really make a difference."

That doesn't mean it hasn't been without problems.Personally and socially speaking, Dr. Bradberryadmits that being at sea for 4 months at a timemakes life on land complicated. "It's like living in 2different worlds and sort of dancing back and forthbetween the 2." From a medical standpoint, professionalisolation is the greatest challenge. "In theemergency department of a hospital, I would havean opportunity to consult any specialist just by pickingup the phone," Dr. Bradberry explains. "Takingcare of that same patient out at sea, that's a differentsituation. It's a humbling and sobering thought.On the larger ships, there can be almost 5000 people.That's a small town, and almost anything that canhappen in a small town can happen on a ship."

Working with a staff of 3 or 4 nurses, Dr.Bradberry has treated passengers for just abouteverything, including motor vehicle accidents."When we dock, people get off, rent mopeds, wearno helmets, get into an accident, and then comeback on ship just as we're getting under way. Thenthey'll come down to the infirmary and we're 30 minutesout to sea."

One of the more unique situations Dr. Bradberryhas encountered was when a male passenger sufferedcardiac arrest in the ship's casino. The passenger hit thejackpot, grew excited, and began to develop chestpains. About 5 minutes later he was in cardiac arrest."But we did all the things for him that would be donein an intensive care unit," Dr. Bradberry recalls, "andhe ended up doing very well."


On a normal day, clinic hours on the ship arescheduled from 8 to 11 AM, and again from 3 to 6 PM.Interestingly, about 80% of the workload comesfrom taking care of the ship's crew.

"There are about 1000 crew members, and they'llcome in with standard viral infections and cases ofback pain due to some of the manual labor they haveto perform," Dr. Bradberry explains. "But it's prettymuch what you would expect to see in the waitingroom of a family practice doctor." When ship passengersdo visit the infirmary, however, it's usually with amore serious ailment. "These folks are on a cruise, andthey don't want to spend their time and money in theship's infirmary. So when a passenger comes down,there's usually something serious going on."

Despite ship life's trying situations, Dr. Bradberryloves what he does. "It's an opportunity to participatein a challenging medical practice, handlingwhatever type of case comes our way."

And working with the crew? Dr. Bradberry likensit to being a doctor at the United Nations. "The crewrepresents more than 60 different nationalities, andI truly enjoy that," he says. "Some of them comefrom third world countries and have never had medicaltreatment in their lives. They're very appreciativeof having access to a doctor, and I find the experienceimmensely rewarding."

Carnival Cruise Lines ( is theworld's largest and most popular cruise line, based on2.5 million passengers carried annually. The publiclytraded company has annual revenues in excess of $4.5billion. Its cruising area includes the Caribbean, Alaska,Hawaii, Canada, and Europe.