Features April 2014 Issue

Beaming Down Satcom Surgeons

Sailors benefit from rising interest in telemedicine services.

Photos courtesy of Velux 5 Oceans Race
Photos courtesy of Velux 5 Oceans Race

Wind generator blades sliced Polish sailor Zbigniew ‘Gutek’ Gutkowski during the 2010 Velux 5 Oceans Race.

Telemedicine, the ability to remotely treat patients in far-flung corners of the world, was still in its infancy in 1998 when it was put to a highly publicized test aboard a storm-tossed sailboat in the Southern Ocean.

Russian competitive sailor Viktor Yazykov was participating in the solo Around Alone Race. His boat was about 900 miles below the tip of South Africa when his rig began falling apart. While Yazykov was repairing a broken shroud, an elbow he had injured earlier in the race grew inflamed with infection.

Yazykov knew he needed to take quick action. He contacted race officials, who relayed his message to Dr. Daniel Carlin, a former U.S. Navy physician who two years earlier had founded Voyager Medicine to remotely treat ships crews.

Carlin emailed Yazykov specific instructions via Inmarsat C satellite, but delays in this form of communication nearly cost Yazykov his life. On the brink of collapse, Yazykov followed Carlin’s instructions. He lanced the pus-filled abscesses on his arm, and then treated the bleeding. A new approach to offshore medicine was born.

Sixteen years later, telemedicine is an essential part of offshore racing. It’s also quicker. In the 2010 Velux 5 Oceans race, a similar service, Medical Support Offshore, based in the United Kingdom, offered assistance to Polish sailor Zbigniew “Gutek” Gutkowski after he sliced his head on his wind generator. Thankfully, prior to the race, doctors from Medical Support had trained Gutkowski how to handle just such an emergency.

Photos courtesy of Velux 5 Oceans Race
Photos courtesy of Velux 5 Oceans Race

Gutkowski stitched his own wounds using experience gained stitching pig’s feet during pre-race training.

Today, Carlin operates WorldClinic, a company based in New London, N.H., that provides clients around the globe with emergency telemedicine services. Telemedicine is not just for emergencies in faraway countries. Domestic demand for remote monitoring services is prompting a range of new technologies, many of which can benefit cruising sailors.

The establishment of clinics in rural regions that lack doctors and hospitals has become a driving force in the growth of telemedicine. The field is often referred to as tele-health or e-health when applied to non-emergency purposes.

Telemedicine is more than just an ability to call a doctor for advice. New technology has made it possible for medical professionals to use sophisticated instruments to monitor the health of their patients from a distance, in many cases, hundreds of miles. Tele-health services serve sparsely settled regions of the Midwest, northern Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and other states bordering Canada, as well as in prisons and areas populated by migrant farm workers.

Remote sensing devices, often located in a patient’s home, can record blood pressure, heart rate, glucose levels, and other health indicators, while Web cameras linked to high-speed networks provide a real-time view. This “tele-presence” works best when a high-speed fiber-optic cable carries the video and data signals, but increasingly, these devices are being employed at sea via satellite, with some limitations.

What does this mean for cruising sailors? Many cruisers are older, more vulnerable to injury or tropical illness that might be a mere nuisance to a younger sailor. Some suffer chronic illnesses—such as diabetes, high blood pressure, or Parkinson’s disease—that require monitoring. In a nutshell, telemedicine offers cruisers a safety net that didn’t exist a few decades ago.

Next: Uplinks and Downloads

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