YES, I WAS RIGHT, BUT I WISH I HADN’T BEEN


When I saw a familiar ship steam into Subic Bay and moor, I decided I ought to visit to check out their sick bay.  It would be the only time in our 8 month WESTPAC deployment my ship and theirs would simultaneously be in the same port.

It was a wise decision.

The other ship had a corpsman, and it had been one of my ancillary duties to ensure their medical readiness for deployment to the Western Pacific.  Before boarding, I had received a list of their deficiencies:  instruments still wrapped in cosmoline, poor record keeping and outdated supplies were the worst.  On my first visit, I additionally discovered their Executive Officer (XO) was a Type I diabetic, who apparently varied his insulin depending upon how he felt (this was before blood glucose monitoring). The ship was a floating medical mess, and I told my shore-based medical boss my concerns about the XO.  He ordered me to ignore the diabetic and do whatever else it took to get them ready.

My adoptee vessel would spend time training at sea when my own was in port, giving me opportunity to ride her and fix deficiencies.  So, the following week, I boarded for three days of steaming 50-100 miles off southern California.  After morning sick call, where the corpsman was thrilled to have me, we got to work cleaning instruments, removing outdated supplies, ordering new ones, re-organizing the department.  We had a lot to do; unfortunately, their ship rode a lot worse at sea than mine.

Later that morning, I took a break to the bridge wing, watching California recede, when the Captain came up beside me.  I saluted, he returned it, promptly ripping me a new one:  “I don’t appreciate your trying to torpedo the career of my XO.”

Stunned, I replied,  “Captain, what are you talking about?”

“Your concerns about his diabetes went to the Commodore, and I had to answer to him.  My XO sees a full Captain at Balboa (the Naval Regional Medical Center), who knows far more about diabetes than you do.  So stay out of this, doctor.”

He walked away, not returning my salute.

The Captain at Balboa did know more about diabetes; I was 3 months out of internship.  But I was a shipboard doctor, and he almost certainly never was.  We had shore based physicians who sent sailors back to the ship with instructions not to climb, when we dealt with ladders dozens of times a day.  Another said a sailor couldn’t return to a ship because of exposure to salt spray, as if we were a catamaran, not a 14,000 ton vessel where I stayed drier on a Pacific crossing than a 5 year-old at the beach.

I felt relaxed that December day in the Philippines when I went to the other ship.  I had made their medical department ready for deployment.  I taught the corpsman everything I knew about diabetes and on a routine physical of a crewman discovered an abdominal mass that was lymphoma.

I asked permission to come aboard, saluting the colors and Officer of the Deck (OOD), saying I could find my way to sick bay.  As I walked down the passageway on the 1 deck, the corpsman practically ran me down.  “Quick,” he said, “The XO.”

Surprise, surprise.

We rocketed up 3 ladders topside to the XO’s stateroom, where I found him sweaty, uncoordinated with slurred speech, a vial of insulin and a glass of orange juice on his desk.  Fortunately, I had ensured the emergency kit had an amp of D50, 50% sugar.  I told the XO to lie down, found a vein, and injected.  Within seconds, he was normal.

We had the OOD call the local Naval Hospital and the Chief Staff Officer, (CSO), the squadron’s troubleshooter.  The CSO was superb; he and I took the XO to the hospital for admission, his sea career finished after 14 years.  He would never command a ship.  Worse, the ship needed a new XO immediately, difficult in mid-deployment.

I had been proven right but felt like hell.  I wish I had been wrong, the XO having no further problems, eventually wearing the 5 pointed star in a circle signifying command at sea.  But I knew he never should have been aboard.  I occasionally wonder why I went over to their ship that day.  Like the lady and the tiger, I wondered had I not been there whether he would have taken/given insulin or orange juice. Not surprisingly, I never heard from the Captain; the CSO, however, thanked me profusely.

We all like being right, dreaming about revenge upon our detractors.  I was right, not because of brilliance, but because common sense, my medical training and probability dictated a brittle diabetic had no business being second in command of a deployed warship.  I’ve been right on many other issues for decades:  climate change, too many carotid endarterctomies, diagnosing depression in patients who thought I was saying they were crazy, chronic pain being highly correlated with not at fault injury, the need for a medical error reporting system.  I wasn’t brilliant; all I did was to observe nature and people, be realistic, use science, probability and tried to avoid magical, irrational, ideological behavior I and all of us are prone to. I often wish my conclusions were different or I was wrong, but I try to follow the facts.

Whenever I want to say “I told you so!” I remember that time in Subic Bay.  Being right often brings no joy; it only means that one’s observations and conclusions are correct.

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