Medical Emergencies Onboard a Cruise Ship; What You Need to Know as a Passenger

doctor-300x225A recent case involving  Holland America cruise line being sued by a passenger from Illinois illustrates how important it is that a passenger know what may happen if faced with a medical emergency during the cruise. The cruise ship companies often promote their medical facilities and medical staff on board their cruises as being of the highest standard. It has become a marketing tool for them, representing to the public that they have qualified emergency room doctors on board their ships to deal with medical emergencies, and medical supplies and facilities in compliance with standards of the American College of Emergency Physicians.  A passenger may get the false sense of security that the medical staff on board the cruise ship can adequately handle medical emergencies. Often times, the medical staff does have some background in emergency room medicine as required, but really are not specialists capable of properly diagnosing and treating true medical emergencies.

Holland America Cruise Line sued by passenger after delayed medical evacuation

The recent lawsuit involving the Illinois cruise ship passenger that is suing Holland America involves allegations that the cruise ship company did not promptly medically evacuate the passenger to appropriate facilities to treat her after she suffered a stroke while on board the MS Zuiderdam.  What are the potential options when a passenger does suffer a stroke such as this Illinois woman did on the Holland America cruise ship? 1st, the shipboard medical staff will treat the passenger, and formulate a diagnosis and plan. The ship’s senior medical doctor will get involved, and he or she has resources available to consult, such as a Miami-based medical department within the cruise ship company, as well as a host of other medical experts available to consult with by telephone or computer.

The major cruise ship companies have policies and procedures in writing that instructs the medical staff of the options involving a medical emergency, and the factors and considerations for determining whether to recommend a medical evacuation from the ship by Coast Guard helicopter or Coast Guard vessel. One of the unfortunate factors listed in the procedures is the impact or disruption of the medical evacuation on the cruise ship itinerary. This encourages the cruise ship companies to try to stabilize passengers on board in the ship medical facility until the ship can reach the next port, where the passenger can then be disembarked and sent to a medical facility for treatment. The problem is that the port may be a foreign port with questionable medical facilities and medical doctors. The passenger is then often left in a foreign port while the cruise ship sails on to keep the scheduled itinerary. While the cruise ship companies have care teams to assist passengers when this happens, this is often a very scary situation, and a predicament for a passenger left in a foreign country. To get an air ambulance to return to the United States for an appropriate facility and treatment is extremely expensive and can run in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The cruise ship company has the option of altering the route of the vessel to get to a port faster or a more appropriate port for treatment, by changing the course of the ship, changing the speed of the vessel, whatever is necessary to get to the appropriate port in a timely manner. Another option is a medical evacuation either by boat or by air. The United States Coast Guard can be contacted for an air or vessel evacuation in many cases. However the captain of the cruise ship really has the final say on what will take place. The ship’s medical doctor must consult with the captain and the staff captain, provide his medical advice, but the ultimate decision is going to come from the captain, most likely with input from the Miami-based office.

Medical Treatment Delayed in Bahamas Hospital Despite Close Proximity to Florida

In the Holland America case, the passenger who suffered a stroke ended up with severe neurological damages, which the lawsuit alleges was caused because the cruise ship company electing not to air lift her promptly from the cruise ship, but instead continued on the voyage, and later transported her to a hospital by tugboat in Freeport, Bahamas. The lawsuit alleges that the hospital she was sent to did not have a working CT scan equipment or any neurological specialists on duty, delaying the passenger from being sent to Florida until the following morning, which was 15 hours after the onset of her stroke. This was despite the fact, as alleged in the lawsuit, that the cruise ship was no more than 100 miles from Florida at the time the passenger suffered the stroke and she could easily have been airlifted back to Florida if the cruise ship company had made such arrangements.

This lawsuit highlights the dangers a passenger could face with a medical emergency while at sea. Also, in my opinion, it also highlights the importance of obtaining good travel insurance when going on a cruise, and doing some preliminary research as to what actions to take in the event one is faced with a medical emergency.

Medical evacuation from a cruise ship can be a difficult process, and in itself can pose risks and dangers, which must be weighed against the danger of delaying appropriate medical care and treatment.

Our law firm continues to act as safety advocates for those harmed at sea. In this case, the allegation is the cruise ship company did not exercise reasonable care for the safety of their passenger, who suffered a stroke during the cruise. As a result of the delay in treatment, the suit alleges that the passenger is left with severe neurological damages that would have been prevented if a timely medical evacuation had been made getting the passenger to a Florida medical hospital, which unfortunately happened after significant delay.

Source: Holland America cruise line should have called Coast Guard to rescue stroke victim, lawsuit claims