Sunday, March 6, 2016

Death, Severe Injury and Survivor's Guilt at sea: Reflections



    I've been working for pay on boats since I was 7, when I was paid the grand sum of $10 a day baiting lobster traps for my neighbor, and mostly getting in the way... so, just under 35 years.I continued lobstering part or full-time until I was in my mid 30's. I still miss it.

 I saw my first dead body at age 8, despite the best efforts of the two old timers on the boat at the time. A floater than happened to pass by. Boston in the 80's, it happened. It was disturbing, but whether the soothing touch of anno domini or a child's innocence, it didn't make a massive emotional impression that I recall- I was more wrapped up in sneaking out of the cabin through a skylight in the overhead and worried about getting caught than anything else. Thank God. The old guy chewed me out but good, like an adult, for my actions. First time in my life someone swore at me, and he had a gift for it. I remember that a lot more than the body.

          I've since seen death on a ship again, as an adult, and a fair number of severe injuries and a few medical emergencies, too.  I remember each well, although of course with time the emotional component that accompanies the memories gets attenuated.

       On a merchant ship, the medicine chest is fairly extensive, and there is more help available. I took the 'Medical Person-In-Charge' class years ago, and learned a lot, but it's still little more or less than a basic EMT class- bandaids and first aid, CPR, that sort of thing, with some extras, like stitching, intubation, injectables, AED's,  and IV's and lessons on sticking tubes in and out of awful places.
      Sometimes none of that is enough, and the one thing that can save a person, getting them to a real doctor, is just not possible, and the person dies. In the case of illness taking a life while on a ship, everyone just feels awful, as you might expect, and, if you've never worked on a ship, one of the senior officers has to prepare the body for cold storage. The body has to go in the fridge, not the freezer, to prevent freezer burn and ensure that the family can have an open-casket funeral.
      The details of body preparation are as undignified as anything one might imagine, and involve washing the body, stuffing it everywhere, full of cotton batting, and bagging it up in one of the body bags that all ships carry on board, and in it goes in the fridge, next to the eggs, orange juice and veggies.

      A traumatic death or a severe injury comes with survivor's guilt, which I certainly never expected, perhaps because I never joined the military.

       Off of Cape Hatteras, years ago on the tanker "The Monseigneur" the ship took green water over the bow, really buried the bow deep, while a half dozen of us were working right there. We were in 20' seas, it was clear and cool out, and a life raft canister had broken loose and was rolling around on deck. Many tankers have a life raft up forward, as they do sometimes snap in half, and no telling which half you might be on at the time.

        Well, long story short, while we were out there, the ship took a deep roll to one side, a good 35-40 degree roll, and when it was rolling the other way, the bow buried. At the time, my watch partner and I had a great spot to hold on. We were just forward of the mast, and, although we were facing aft, when I felt the ship shudder, hesitate, and heard the boom of the slap of water against the hull, coupled with the sky going dark, my watch partner and I looked right at each other, both perfectly round-eyed, and hugged the mast. Both got knocked straight down from the wall of water landing on us, then spent a few seconds under water, holding our breath and getting bounced around before it calmed enough that we could stand in the still knee-deep water.
    Every one of us found something to hold on to, except for one guy, who just got fucked up, and rolled with the wave about a hundred feet aft, hitting every piece of steel on the way, and there were many pieces of steel. Ruined the guy's shoulder, broke his arm, sprains and strains in his ankles. Tore his clothes right off him- no shit, the guy ended up with just half of a leg of his coveralls still on him. But his boots stayed. I remember that because taking them off  later was the only time the guy screamed. I was in the room. The guys who were not in the room, who didn't know it was coming were much more shocked at the sound. Worse case of road rash I've ever seen- the decks are nonskidded by mixing sandblasting grit into the paint. It's about 60 grit, what you'd find on a metal grinding wheel. So, imagine being wet-sanded for 100 feet while bouncing around like the last coffee bean in the can.
      Not knowing if another wave was coming, we picked the guy up and ran with him about 400 feet to the house, which probably didn't feel good either, but without talking about it, waiting for a backboard was a recipe for a repeat, so it didn't happen.
     After, when the  guy was cleaned up, treated, made comfortable and medicated, and put in bed, we all sat around the galley, feeling bad for the guy and feeling guilty for being elated that it wasn't us.
           It elevates you, a close call like that. Part of you feels really bad for the guy who didn't escape harm, but a larger part of yourself is dealing with the euphoria of being on the side of the angels when bad luck takes a swing and a miss. The treatment for this is socialization. After we saw our shipmate made comfortable, we were ordered to shower and change, then come back to the galley ASAP. There we started talking, and it wasn't too long before the first smiles and laughs, and over the next 90 minutes or so, with coffee, bug juice, fruit and some pastries laid out by the steward, we proceeded to relive the experience, laughing, comic, pantomimed actions ("You should have seen your face! Completely pie-eyed." "I saw the shadow of the wave, and I hear Dave say "aw, fuck me" in this little voice."), occasional laments for the guy in his bunk, more laughing. We didn't talk about the little guilt. It gets overwhelmed, but it's there, and, perhaps worse, it's like a spice to the dish we're eating, in it's own way.

      Years later, after getting caught in a hurricane and witnessing a casualty on the bridge, it was weeks before we really had the opportunity for a counter-reaction. I remember it because we were all standing on the bridge, underway on a lovely day, everyone who was witness to the accident, and a few folks who came aboard after, just listening. There were some chuckles from all of us who were remembering, often related to how damn lucky we were, and how random it was. I was more aware of feeling guilty that I should have gotten away with no more than a couple of bruises and a bloody nose, while there was just broken shit flying through the air everywhere, and I had the ship's wheel to hold on to when we rolled onto the beam.  Fuck, I still hear the sound of that 3rd mate's head bouncing off the bulkhead after she slid like a hockey puck across the deck.
          Even so, with all that, there was some laughter all those weeks later- not for our poor injured shipmate, but for having whistled past the graveyard, and come out clean on the other side. The feeling of exuberance, of relief, is difficult to describe. We're not made to handle massive amounts of emotional energy for long- look how fucked up people get when time can't buffer the emotional intensity of memories- when they DON'T fade, that's when people need help. For my part, I accept the guilt as part of the price of the pleasure, the other side of the coin. I could choose to embrace the guilt, hold it tight, but I prefer to acknowledge it's presence, just as I admit that I liked being able to walk away from danger, that not getting hurt was exhilarating, and made me feel very happy and aware of being alive and present in the moment.

2 comments:

Bob said...

In the Navy during crossing-the-equator ceremonies the pollywogs get their "royal shower" by being blasted across the nonskid deck with firehoses. This comes after the "royal bath," which is crawling around in a tube or tub of wet galley garbage saved for just that occasion.

I only have one foul-weather story I can tell: a shipmate of mine, Goodreau, and myself were detailed to dump burn bags of shredded, classified material over the ship's fantail. We were in the Norwegian Sea and had heavy following seas breaking over the fantail. Usually the weather decks were secured during such periods, but this day they weren't, so back to the fantail we went with our bulky bags. Proper protocol was that we were to throw them directly into the propeller wash so they would be sucked under and chewed up by the propellers; this day, with seas breaking over the fantail, we had to time it carefully so as not to get soaked by a sea. I got rid of mine fine and was already climbing the ladder back to the helicopter deck when I turned to see if Goodreau was following. He had disposed of his bag and was walking across the fantail deck just when a rogue wave crashed over. "Goodie, run!" I shouted. He glanced back and began running, with the wave pursuing him. He jumped onto a raised access hatch and stood there swaying and trying to catch his balance as the wave broke on either side of the hatch. He looked like a bit like Moses, when I think about it. I was laughing at him and he just shot me a finger as the wave washed back through the scuppers.

Jacob Lanzer said...

Sorry for the bother, but did you receive my email?