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Bring Your Medical History Form Onboard!

What would happen if you were seriously injured or keeled over out on the water and couldn’t speak for yourself? How would your mates and later your rescuers know the whole story? Our medical history, made up of our medical problems and medications, is really, really personal and no one’s business, until it has to be.

Why Knowing Your Medical History Is So Important

I recently came across an interesting article in the April 2014 edition of the Practical Sailor that serves as an apropos example of the importance of having our medical history available to the skipper or medical officer aboard. In the 2009, 645 mile, Marion MA to Bermuda race, a crew member aboard the C & C 40 Corsair, began to behave strangely. What began as subtle mental lapses turned to full on hallucinations and erratic behavior. The medical officer aboard made the decision to unseal the crew member’s confidential medical history envelope. With this information, he made a satellite phone call to a telemedicine service, where the maritime medical access service had a physician on call 24 hours to serve sailors at sea. Having access to the sailor’s medical history and having a well stocked medical kit allowed treatment to begin onboard a week before they were able to safely sail him to port and inpatient hospital treatment. The details of the ordeal can be found in Diane Kelly’s account “Lost At Sea”, published in Ocean Navigator magazine.

How To Fill Out Your Medical History Form

Medical History Form IMAGE

My medical history form you’re welcome to use for your sailing (and other travel!) needs.
Form courtesy Shelly Galligan.

I’m asking you to write down this critical information and carry it in a sealed envelope with you on the water. Give it to the skipper, the medical officer, or let someone else on the boat know where it is in the event it’s needed. Click to download a form I created to make it easier for you. It’s a one page document to concisely communicate the important information that may save your life. If you find that your medical history resembles the Dead Sea Scrolls and one page isn’t enough, contact me and I’ll share the two page version with you.

Name, rank, and serial number are first. We’re talking about your name, your physician’s name, an emergency contact, and your date of birth here. We can and will start treating you immediately without this information using the name John or Jane Doe. The process, however, becomes seamless if we know your name and can let your family know where you are. Having your physician’s name allows us to obtain medical records that may contain life saving information and to consult with your doctor for input on caring for you from the provider who knows you best. It also allows us to coordinate your follow up care. Yes birthday gives us your age, makes us ponder what great wrinkle cream you’re using, and when to send out the surprise party invitations, but it’s also an identifier when you get to a higher level of care like a rescue boat or hospital.

Finally, in the get to know you part of the form, is the date of your last tetanus shot. This isn’t immediately life and death, but if you have a break in the skin it’s important that it’s up to date and now is the time to check on that. Getting immunized is a really easy solution for a really nasty, potentially fatal disease. No one should get on a boat without it being up to date. There are just too many ways to cut yourself out there.

Detail All Your Medications

Next, let us know your medications in DETAIL please. Knowing you take a little white pill every morning with your coffee and donuts is not enough. Ideally, we’d like to know the name, dosage, frequency, and why you take it. Many medications have more than one purpose. Write down all of your prescription medications, EVEN the ones you only take when you need them. Not knowing that you take Viagra on Saturday nights could be disastrous if you were to be given nitroglycerin for chest pain. Insulin IS a medication, please put it on the list if you take it! If you use a crucial medication such as nitroglycerin, insulin or an inhaler for asthma show someone where you keep it in case you need it and can’t get to it. Over the counter medications and supplements are important too. Some could have interactions with medications a rescuer may need to give to you. We don’t need to know that you take Tylenol for an occasional ache or pain, but an taking an Aspirin every day is important to know.

Major Illnesses And Surgeries Too, Please

Now it’s time to list your major illnesses AND surgeries please. Not that time in 1952 you broke your arm when your brother pushed you off of your bicycle. We’re talking the BIGGIES here! Diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, cancer, stroke, respiratory problems (like asthma, emphysema or COPD), neurologic problems, kidney problems, seizures, infectious diseases (like tuberculosis, hepatitis or HIV). The biggies for surgeries too, such as artificial joints, organ transplants, appendix, gallbladder or other guts removed, cardiac surgeries (bypass, valve replacement, stents etc), you get the idea. If you know the approximate date-ish, that would be icing on the cake. I’m a lot more concerned if you fall and hit your head when you’ve had a stroke a month ago than if you had one during the Nixon Administration.

Lastly, let us know your allergies. We certainly care if Tide gives you a rash, but we care a whole lot more if bees or peanuts make your throat swell shut. It’s nice to know the kind of reaction you have; rash, difficulty breathing, hives, itching, complete anaphylaxis. You don’t have to have the fancy medical language for it, just describe what happens in everyday language. If an epi-pen has been prescribed for your allergy, show someone where it is and how to use it. This could save your life.

Knowing This Information Could Save Your Life

This is a crucial project and could mean the difference between life and death. It’s easier for us to have each other’s backs if we have the whole story. Professional mariners are required to provide this information to their captain before the boat leaves the dock. Why would we accept anything less?

Sign up on my mailing list below for more practical medical safety info to use on the water! You’ll receive my monthly newsletter, the Periodical, highlighting my latest post about confidently handling medical emergencies on the water, my speaking schedule, race results and more! Once a month, I’ll share information that could help save a life. Who wouldn’t want that?

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  1. Yardena (Dana) Robb on November 12, 2018 at 6:47 am

    So smart and, like so many of your tips, easy to do in advance and life-saving if needed. If I may add one suggestion — be sure to use your full legal name on that form and then put your “known as” name(s) in parenthesis. As someone whose legal first name is unusual, I know that it’s not a connection everyone automatically makes. And we want to be sure the medical staff that is contacted onshore can find your doctor and complete records!

    • Shelly Galligan on November 15, 2018 at 8:29 am

      That’s great advice! Being just plain ol’ Shelly, I hadn’t thought of that. Thank you for sharing this wisdom.

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