When the American crew of the Maersk Alabama regained control of their ship from the pirates who had tried to seize it off the east coast of Africa last week, doctors at GW sprung into action.
As part of the Maritime Medical Access program within the Medical Faculty Associates, the doctors had been contracted by the ship’s owner to provide remote medical treatment in the event of an emergency. No member of the crew was sick or injured, but doctors worked with officials at Maersk, a Danish shipping company, who traveled to Mombasa, Kenya to meet the crew when it made port.
The ship’s captain, Richard Phillips, was captured by the pirates and freed on Sunday after a standoff between the pirates and the U.S. Navy. Three of his four captors were killed by Navy SEALs.
Director of the Maritime Medical Access program Michael Hite said the GW doctors helped the Maersk employees do “medical pre-planning,” evaluating diseases and other health dangers they may encounter.
“They were traveling to a part of the country where malaria is very prevalent, so we walked them through which malaria medications they should be taking and the different courses of treatment,” Hite said.
With the ship having already reached port, Hite said GW’s role in the international incident is likely over.
“We’ll cover the new crew [of the Alabama] when they head out to sea,” he said.
Created in 1989, the Maritime Medical Access program provides remote medical care to boats all around the world and is the only such program in existence in the country, Hite said. Companies and individuals can contract the MMA and communicate with them via satellite phone, e-mail and video telecommunications. In the case of the Alabama, Maersk had contracted with the MMA and provided all of their ships with access to the emergency department.
More than 40 doctors are involved in the MMA, all of whom work full-time in the emergency department of the GW Hospital. Doctors are on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Cases range from respiratory problems to broken bones to heart attacks and anything else one would find in an emergency room, Hite said. More than 85 percent of the cases can be dealt with by prescribing a course of treatment from Foggy Bottom, although distance to land can become a major issue if the problem is serious.
“When we know there is something tremendously wrong, we can stress they get to a port as quickly as possible,” Hite said. “But we can’t make the boat go any faster.”