Maritime medicine health support keeps SA Navy personnel mission ready


The Institute for Maritime Medicine (IMM) was established to satisfy the unique interaction between medical services onboard SA Navy ships and specialised medical services in the maritime environment.

It is responsible for all aspects of health support in the maritime environment including enabled specialised functions such as diving and submarine medicine.

IMM provides primary health and specialist maritime health support to approximately 10 000 members and dependents. Medical officers have a diverse array of functions in respect of health support onboard SA Navy ships. They ensure that all the crew members are in good health by conducting regular health assessments.

It is also the responsibility of the medical officers to ensure that the ship is properly stocked with medicines and medical equipment before voyage, SA Soldier magazine reports.

The medical officers and the emergency care orderlies are responsible for the health support which includes routine medicals and provide emergency care for operational and exercise medical support.

During voyages, the medical officers are also responsible hygiene inspections of cabins, storerooms and bathrooms. This is to maintain good hygiene on board the ships to would minimise the spread of infections.

When conducting diving operations and training, a medical officer must be on site for any possible diving medical emergencies such as drowning, hyperthermia and decompression sickness.

The Officer Commanding of the Institute for Maritime Medicine, Colonel Chris Arnold, said the practice is no longer restricted to deep sea and expeditionary purposes but has also includes littoral regions as well.

“I think lately it has become quite bigger and wider including the littoral regions of the country, basically 100 km in from the coast. This includes estuaries, rivers and all the things associated with the weather, land and the sea get together.

“In a warfare sense, a lot of conflict that happens in the world take place in littoral regions and it is got to do with rivers etc. The maritime function now is much more centred on the littoral areas,” he said.

He explained that their involvement goes as far as giving medical support in anti-piracy operations in small islands around Mozambique where there are boating patrols in the area. This includes support to both the patrol ships and boats and also underwater operations, specifically the divers and submariners.

There are three level of qualifications for medical officers in the IMM. The first level is a Diving Medical Examiner who conducts examinations on divers and submariners. The next level is the Operational Diving Medical Officer, which is a person who can start treating patients who suffered diving accidents and may require to be put in a recompression chamber.

The last one is the Advanced Diving Medical Officer who has done research and written a thesis at a university to obtain a BSC Medical Degree in Underwater medicine. Paramedics are expected to perform maritime first aid and training on Emergency Care Technician course.

The treatment for decompression sickness is called recompression therapy and uses a hyperbaric oxygen chamber and should be instituted as soon as possible. Hyperbaric oxygen treatment can be life-saving and limit incidents of emergencies in diving cases.

Colonel Arnolds said divers and submariners conduct a statutory health assessment as required by law to get a badge of examination. He said regular diving can have certain effect on the bones and require monitoring. He said there is a lot of emphasis on examining the lungs, which is done through x-rays from high definition CT.

He said that there are other health concerns in the underwater environment that can elicit epileptic fits. An individual would then get an electroencephalogram (EEG) test beforehand to make sure that there are no signs of this.

Arnolds said the unit has given lot of assistance to the Department of Environmental Affairs in the past, specifically for ships that were going to Antarctica, Gough Island and Marion Island. They provided them with paramedics for the expeditions and also assisted with their ships scales, medical scales, and various medical equipment for the ships.

He indicated that part of the unit’s responsibility is to help design medical facilities onboard the ships and submarines. Through Project TESS, escape plans are designed in case the crew needs to exit the submarine during distress.

He said: “There are two types of submarine escape in the SA Navy, one includes flooding the submarine and people inside try to get to out from one of the three hatches in the submarine (Rush Escape).

“There is also the Tower Escape where the tower is flooded and pressurised then the upper hatch is opened and the escapees exit and surface in special escape suits. When they are out, the hatch is closed and the water is drained. The same process is repeated again.”

Article by Staff Sergeant Itumeleng Makhubela and | Defence Corporate Communication | SA Soldier Magazine.