What Happens if You Get Sick or Hurt on a Cruise, According to a Ship Paramedic

When headed out on a cruise, getting sick or hurt is usually the last thing on a passenger’s mind.

Unfortunately, accidents do happen. From gastro-intestinal bugs to seasickness to spraining an ankle on a rolling ship, the chance for a mishap is always there. And while 99% of passengers have their cruise go without a hitch, there are some unlucky passengers who find themselves seeking medical treatment on their vacation.

So what exactly happens if you have to see a doctor or need treatment on a cruise? Or what if you simply forget your prescription at home? The good news is that every major cruise ship has a medical team ready to assist guests.

In fact, we recently spoke with a former cruise ship paramedic, who shared all the details of what passengers can expect if they get sick or hurt on their cruise.

A Former Cruise Ship Paramedic Shares the Details

Sabrina Robinson is a former cruise ship paramedic. She worked aboard Princess Cruise Lines’ Diamond Princess, a 952′ vessel that can carry nearly 3,000 passengers. During her time on the ship, it sailed routes in Australia and New Zealand.

Talking with her, you begin to understand how much the ship’s medical team works seemingly unnoticed by most passengers. According to Robinson, the number of medical crew “varies by ship but… tried to have two doctors, two to three nurses, and two paramedics.”

During the course of the cruise, that staff stayed busy. Between fielding calls for everything from motion sickness to broken legs, the medical team saw dozens of patients each cruise, with an occasional patient that had to stay long term in the ship’s medical facility.

“It is rare to have inpatients, but it would happen. Over my [time], I experienced two inpatients — meaning they stayed in our medical center for two or more nights — and one casualty,” Robinson said.

“We usually had about 20 passengers visit the medical center a week for various complaints. Cough, cold, or needed a prescription med they forgot back home.”

And if you do forget a prescription at home? What do you do then? According to Robinson, that’s actually not that big of a deal. In her experience, “You can come into the medical center for an evaluation and have the doctor coordinate with an offshore pharmacy to get your prescription. Passengers don’t even have to be inconvenienced of picking up the meds themselves in port, the meds will be delivered straight to the ship for them.”

Evacuations Are Rare, But Incidents Do Happen

Helicopter evacuation
It’s rare to have to be evacuated.

But what if something more serious happens than being a little seasick or forgetting your medicine? For instance, what if you have to be evacuated from the ship?

Well, the good news is that these incidents don’t happen often:

“[Evacuations are] very rare! I didn’t experience it. We stayed pretty close to land compared to what people might think, so the Coast Guard can always come and met up with a ship to get a critical patient off urgently if need.

“I did have a patient break a leg while on the ship. We unfortunately had just left port the night he broke it and the next day was at sea. We kept the passenger comfortable in our medical center and then coordinated for an ambulance to meet us at the next port to take the passenger to a local hospital and have surgery. This was a case where it was okay for the passenger to wait for evacuation. Not ideal for a vacation, but wasn’t a life-threatening break either.”

Step-By-Step: What Happens When You Get Sick

So what is the actual procedure if you get sick or hurt on a cruise? Robinson says you’ll receive medical attention one of two ways:

“A passenger can come to the medical center during clinic hours or they can dial the emergency 911 number on their room phone (or a phone located anywhere else on the ship). The on call nurse or paramedic will get the details of the call and either go to their room to get all of the information or go to the location on the ship the call came from.

“After the assessment, and depending on the urgency of the call, the patient can either be escorted back to the medical center for further care.

“I had calls come from a room of a passenger just not feeling well, I’d go up and assess and then go back to medical center and get a basic medicines they may need and deliver them back to their room. If they needed stronger meds, I’d call the doctor to come meet me in the room to do his/her assessment and then prescribe the stronger meds for the patient.”

Medical Care Isn’t Free; Travel Insurance Is Recommended

Medical care isn’t free, even on a cruise.

The bad news about medical care on a ship? It’s not free. “There was an initial visit fee, and then a fee per procedure and the cost of each medication. I want to say a basic visit and some nausea medication may run a passenger around $50,” Robinson said.

That’s why she highly recommends that all passengers have travel insurance for their trip. “The fees can rack up quickly for any doctor/hospital visit, and it’s no different on a cruise ship!”

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And what’s the one best tip this former paramedic has about being safe and healthy on the ship?

“Wash your hands! The cruise ship is like a tiny city on water. You are in the company of so many people coming from all over the world. Wash your hands! Norovirus is common anytime a big group of people are living in close quarters. To prevent this kind of outbreak, people must wash their hands.”