The Life of a Shipboard Doctor

We all know that doctors work in offices and in hospitals. And we hear about them volunteering abroad, for instance, after a natural disaster or in third-world countries. But did you know that some physicians practice medicine aboard cruise ships?

It’s logical to assume that luxury liners have a physician onboard but it’s not the ‘normal’ career we think of for physicians.

Ben MacFarlane is one who worked as a doctor aboard a cruise ship, and he writes about it in Cruise Ship SOS.Cruise Ship SOS book cover image He also wrote Holiday SOS, which focuses on his experiences as a repatriation doctor.

MacFarlane took a few minutes to discuss his books – and adventures – with our editors.

Tell JobMonkey’s readers a little bit about yourself.

I grew up wanting to do two things – to be a doctor and to travel. For a long time I thought I’d have to pick one or the other and I picked medicine.

I trained as a doctor in Liverpool, England and worked in several hospitals and medical centres over the years. One day one of the nurses I worked with in London told me about medical repatriations – she earned some extra money doing freelance repat jobs, flying overseas to meet, assess and fly home with people who’ve been taken ill or got injured on holiday or on business abroad. It’s one of the vital benefits of travel insurance we often don’t think about.

‘Doctors do repats as well,’ she told me. And I was off. I did my first one as a freelancer as was hooked. I did a few more over the next few months, then decided to see if I could get enough work to do them full time. After a year or so of that I still had the travel bug and again a fellow nurse gave me a cruise ship connection.

What motivated you to write these fascinating books?

People seemed to like hearing about the repatriations and the cruise ship incidents – at dinner parties and other places peoples seemed fascinated by the job because it’s not something that’s ever been written about or shown on TV or anything.

A friend of a friend said I should try to write a book. A ghost-writing friend, Neil Simpson, said he would help and we managed to get a deal, which was brilliant fun.

In a nutshell, can you summarize Cruise Ship SOS and Holiday SOS?

They are two ‘year in the life of’ books – a year in the life of a doctor who flies round the world to help people who’ve hit trouble overseas. And a dramatic year in the life of a doctor on a massive cruise ship – trying to keep smiling while dealing with hundreds of extraordinary incidents from thousands of passengers and crew.

Why do you think these books resonate with people? The subject matter seems a bit obscure … are people drawn to the travel & adventure aspect?

I think it’s because people don’t realize that doctors do these kinds of jobs.Holiday SOS Book Cover image We don’t tend to think what would happen if we hit trouble and woke up in a foreign hospital, unable to speak the language and desperate to get home.

I’ve had big, strong truckers burst into tears when I arrive as they’ve been so afraid in foreign hospitals and they’re so grateful to see someone from home who’s there to help get them back to their family and friends.

And as for cruise ships I think people are fascinated by what goes on ‘below deck.’ There are thousands of passengers and crew on board, so as a doctor you see every type of illness, injury, and crisis. Things can get very heated on board those ships – almost anything can happen and very frequently does.

You have to bond really closely with your fellow medics – and there is amazing camaraderie on board. You have a lot of laughs, but when things go wrong there’s amazing, tense drama. I loved it.

What WEREN’T you prepared for when you set off to be a travelling physician?

It sounds crazy, but I hadn’t realized how much it would take over your life. Being away so much, and as a repat doctor not knowing exactly when your next trip might be, it is easy to lose touch with friends and family at home. If you’re thinking of doing a similar job do build a strategy to stay connected and stay in touch.

Cruise Ship SOS focuses on your cruise ship experience. It sounds fun…but not so much?

I loved that job – because I worked with a small but brilliant team of other medics. I’m sure it would have been tough if I hadn’t got on so well with my crew, but in a way the job does by itself self-select well-travelled, interesting people who will probably be good company.

In medical terms it was a steep learning curve as well. There’s a lot of good tele medicine and you’re never entirely cut off from the rest of the world. But it’s not like being in a major hospital with plenty of other staff to call upon. It may well just be the three or four of you.

Whatever comes through your surgery door you have to deal with right away. And with several thousand potential patients of all ages and life stages, it really can be absolutely anything.

It’s a cliché but no two days ever were the same – you need to be on your toes all the time.

The one downside? It’s hard to be off duty. Everyone knows you’re the doctor or the nurse. If something goes wrong you’ll always get the call.

Time to give some advice…1) reasons why you SHOULD try working on cruise ship and 2) reasons to steer clear.

Do it if you’ve got wanderlust. Life is an adventure and even if you hate it you’ll have plenty to talk about afterwards. Give it a go!
Steer clear if you need to work as part of a large team with a lot of support, or if you can’t bear to be apart from loved ones for a long time. You’ll probably have to sign up for at least a year – and that could really drag if you don’t like it.

When you think about cruise ships, you think “luxury.” How do the crew live?

Sadly, it depends on the crew. Medics do tend to be treated well – with passenger cabins on passenger decks. Other crew don’t do as well – crew decks aren’t as nice and many rooms are shared. So find out before you sign up.

What are some of the better things you took away from your year living and working on a cruise ship?

I did make some great friends and I had some amazing experiences. I think I’m a more flexible, more resourceful, and better doctor because I had to think on my feet so often. Plus, I got to see so much of the world. It’s hard to beat all told!

Have a you got another book in mind?

I’ve settled down for a while and I’m working full time in a hospital in London, England – and while I love my job I don’t feel it’s as dramatic, exciting or funny as some repats or the cruise ship year. But I would love to work on another book – so thanks for reminding me and inspiring me to think about it again!


Book Titles: Cruise Ship SOS and Holiday SOS


Sign up for our newsletter!