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Ship's doctor's work far from fiction

Former park ranger says job is nothing like 'The Love Boat'

By Peggy Peck
MedPage Today Senior Editor

Editor's note: has a business partnership with, which provides custom health content.

Bradberry explains a medical procedure to ship nurses Marelee Rademeyer and Tremayne King.



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MIAMI, Florida (MedPage Today) -- When people learn that Dr. John Bradberry is a ship's doctor the first question they ask is, "Do you wear white shorts?"

The answer is "No."

And that is just one of many ways in which Bradberry differs from fictional ship's doctor Adam Bricker in the TV hit "The Love Boat."

Bradberry, 52, has been a full-time ship's doctor for six years and is senior fleet physician with Carnival Cruise Lines, the Miami-based company with a 21-ship fleet. He says that life as ship's doctor is nothing like an episode from "The Love Boat."

"A ship's doctor, for example, is responsible for the medical care of the crew, which on most ships is a multinational group representing 60 or more nationalities. It is a little like being a doctor at the U.N.," he says. "That's where we spend the majority of our time, although we do take care of guests as well."

Bradberry said that the ideal candidate for ship's doctor is a physician who is trained in emergency medicine as well as family medicine, which is exactly how he was trained.

But this ship's doctor came to medicine and to sea by a highly unusual path.

A Smokey Bear start

Bradberry, who discussed his job during a satellite phone interview on board the Liberty, which was cruising the Mediterranean bound for Barcelona, Spain, started out as a park ranger.

A native of Alexandria, Virginia, Bradberry attended Virginia Tech University followed by Clemson University for a master's degree with the intent of a career in the great outdoors. He worked in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, "living by myself on top of a mountain" before transferring to Gulf Islands National Seashore near Pensacola, Florida.

Many park rangers are required to be trained as emergency medical technicians (EMT) and Bradberry took his EMT training while working in Florida.

"One of my instructors told me I was really good and suggested that I become a doctor," he said.

As he thought it over, Bradberry agreed that he might be happier as a doctor so he applied to Case Western Reserve School of Medicine in Cleveland, Ohio. When he started medical school in 1981, Case was building a reputation for accepting "non-traditional" medical school students who came to medicine as a second career.

"In my class we had a police officer, a 42-year-old nun, and a karate instructor," he recalled. "But I was told that Case had never had a park ranger, so that may have helped my application."

After medical school, he traveled to Houston, Texas, for specialty training in family and emergency medicine at Baylor Medical Center and Texas Medical Center. He is certified in both specialties.

Once his training was completed, Bradberry headed back to the beach and a job as an attending physician at Baptist Hospital Emergency and Trauma Center in Pensacola, where he had received his EMT training.

He worked there from 1988 to 1999. In 1992 he took a vacation on a Carnival cruise ship and "on formal night when the captain introduced all the senior staff to the passengers he introduced the chief engineer, the hotel director, and then he introduced the ship's physician. I saw the doctor and that did catch my attention. A few years later, I met someone who worked for Carnival and he suggested that I sign on as a part-time physician."

Part-time ship's doctors sign on for single cruises, which is how Bradberry started. He liked the work so much that he signed up as a full-time ship's physician in 1999 and by his own estimation the timing was perfect because he was ready for another career adventure.

Now senior fleet physician, Bradberry is the equivalent of an admiral in the Navy.

In the Carnival fleet, cruise ships usually have two physicians and several nurses on board. The ship's infirmary is equipped to handle "almost any medical situation, but in most cases we prefer to stabilize patients and medevac them by helicopter to the nearest land-based medical facility," he said. Part of his job is setting up land-based partnerships with hospitals in the United States and any foreign countries that the Carnival ships visit.

"If we can't arrange helicopter evacuation, the other alternative is to divert the ship to the nearest port," he said.

Reality is different than fiction

In movies or TV shows, a ship's doctor is often called upon to perform emergency surgery, but Bradberry says that has never occurred on his watch.

"But we did have an incident in which a guest hit the jackpot on a slot machine in a shipboard casino," he said. "The guest was so excited that he had a heart attack. The ship was in the middle of the Pacific heading toward Hawaii, so evacuation was not an option and the closest port was Hawaii, which was four days away."

The ship's two doctors worked together, consulted with Bradberry by satellite phone and stabilized the patient.

"By the time the ship reached port, the patient's vitals had returned to baseline and the doctors in Hawaii decided there was no need for hospitalization," he said.

Making sure that the onboard infirmaries are stocked with state of the art equipment and medicines is also part of Bradberry's job, and he said that before a new ship is added to the fleet he travels to the shipyard to oversee the outfitting of the infirmary.

"We are up and ready for anything with the maiden voyage," he said.

Probably the biggest concern for Bradberry and the medical personnel on cruise ships is the potential for a shipboard epidemic of viral or bacterial infection.

Avoidance and planning

"We have specific plans in place to prevent and control (gastrointestinal) outbreaks, and I'm happy to say that we have so far avoided any major outbreaks on our ships."

For instance, Carnival will not permit a passenger to board the ship if the passenger has any symptoms at dockside.

"We have refused boarding to passengers in the past, and we will do so in the future," he said.

As with most infection control "we have an emphasis on hand washing and on isolating the cases," he said.

Bradberry says that one condition that he has never treated is seasickness.

"I know that people think that a ship's doctor spends most of his time taking care of seasick passengers, but I've never treated a single case."

But one aspect of Bradberry's life is just like an episode from "The Love Boat." He is a newlywed who met his wife -- where else? -- on a cruise. She is a ship's nurse.

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