Embarked on HMS Ocean, the Royal Navy’s largest warship, is a surgical team drawn from across all parts of the UK. Mainly comprising Royal Navy doctors and nurses, there are also personnel from the Army and RAF, making this a unique joint Service organisation afloat.
Although primarily there to provide surgical support in the event of an incident involving the Apache helicopters, the team could also be called upon to provide assistance to any of the NATO ships, submarines or aircraft engaged in enforcing United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973.
In addition to HMS Ocean, the other Royal Navy and Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships taking part in this operation currently comprise the destroyer HMS Liverpool, the mine countermeasures vessel HMS Bangor and the support ships RFA Fort Rosalie and RFA Orangeleaf.
When not deployed to the Mediterranean the servicemen and women of HMS Ocean’s surgical team work within the six hospitals spread around the UK that have military units attached to them, where the bulk of their work is involved in treating civilian NHS patients.
However, whilst fully integrated into these hospitals they also keep themselves up to date with military training and advances in medical practice.
Flexibility is key though, as when the call goes out they need to be prepared to drop everything and deploy abroad, sometimes to environments with which they are not familiar.
For RAF Corporal Suzi Smith, this is the first time she has served at sea. An emergency department nurse from Peterborough, her only previous experience of the sea has been the cross-channel ferry:
This is far bigger and yet more restricted than I was expecting. I may be in the RAF but I have never worked so close to the runway before,” she said. “The noise of the helicopters on deck is a constant accompaniment to the work in sickbay immediately below.
For Major Mike Berski, an Army theatre nurse from Frimley Park Hospital, this is a welcome break from the sandstorms of Afghanistan where he, like many others on the team, have spent several tours:
In Camp Bastion, the dust gets everywhere despite all the precautions that we take. Here on ship there is no dust and the operating theatre and all our equipment are spotlessly clean,” he said.
One factor though that has not changed from Afghanistan is the heat; Libya is on the edge of the Sahara and despite being at sea the compartments on ship still get hot and humid.
The team provides expertise in the important areas of trauma resuscitation that need to be started within two hours of an incident taking place and so Royal Navy consultants in emergency medicine, surgery and anaesthesia lead the team.
For Surgeon Commander Shane McCabe, a consultant anaesthetist from Bournemouth Hospital, this will be his last deployment before leaving the Navy. After 19 years in the Service and deployments all around the world he has decided to concentrate his professional efforts closer to his young family at home, and hopes to set up a restaurant with his wife:
When the call came for this I was about to start a sommelier’s course, but now I am here. One thing I have learnt through my naval career is the need to keep flexible,” he said.
Petty Officer Naval Nurse Claire Williams usually works as the duty senior critical care nurse at Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham, where a lot of her work involves military casualties evacuated from Afghanistan. She said:
I am very glad to be working on board ship again. This is what I trained for.
Royal Navy Warrant Officer Class 2 Beccy Hatch is the team’s biomedical scientist, providing blood tests and cross-matched blood for emergency transfusion:
We have all been thrown together at the last minute but it’s great to see how well the team have gelled. We have been busy training with the ship’s sickbay staff for trauma emergencies and integrating with the rest of the team on board HMS Ocean. Morale is high,” she said.
Surgeon Commander Peter Taylor, officer commanding the surgical team and a vascular surgeon from Peterborough, is pleased with how the deployment is going. He said:
In the last two years, a lot of the medical lessons learnt from Afghanistan have informed developments in how surgical resuscitation for trauma has been delivered on board ships. The team has been expanded to twelve people and provides more expertise in the areas of emergency medicine and intensive care.
We now have a mobile digital X-ray machine on board which has proven so helpful during deployments on land in Afghanistan. So, if we did need to patch anyone up here, they can be confident that they will receive the very highest standards of care.
Since her last port visit to Malta in early July 2011, HMS Ocean has had an intensive period at sea with her Apache attack helicopters from 656 Squadron Army Air Corps supporting the NATO-led operation over Libya.
The Apaches have been ably assisted by other helicopters embarked on HMS Ocean, namely Sea King Mk7s of 857 Naval Air Squadron providing maritime surveillance and Lynx Mk7s of 847 Naval Air Squadron providing force protection and logistic support.
HMS Ocean left the UK in April 2011, forming part of the UK’s Responsive Force Task Group to conduct a series of pre-planned amphibious exercises in the Mediterranean, known as Cougar 11.
With the escalating events in Libya, the UK Government took the opportunity in May 2011 to retask one of the most flexible ships in the Royal Navy’s inventory and ordered HMS Ocean to support the enforcement of the United Nations Security Council Resolution to protect Libyan citizens.