I'm frequently asked about medical care aboard a cruise ship.

We've all been bombarded with the Norovirus "gloom and doom" media reports. Slow news day? Perhaps. But the bottom line for many of us... is it safe to take a cruise? Is onboard medical care adequate? Are the doctors licensed? Can a life-threatening emergency be addressed? Are there nurses onboard? Is there a hospital or medical center on the ship? What happens if I get an infection and need medication, is it available? What happens if I fall and break a bone, is there X-ray equipment onboard?

Thankfully, the answers to all of the above are "yes".

So let's start with Norovirus.
With over 100-cruises under my belt, I have had one…and only one time when the Captain made a general announcement that eight fellow guests had been quanrantined for suspecion of Norovirus. He then proceeded to tell us how to correctly wash our hands and described all precautions being followed at that time. For the remainder of the cruise there were no more updates and it looked as though the "outbreak" was under control.

And just for the record, I am a cronic hand-washer and gave very little thought to catching anything.

However - with that said, let's be clear. The common cold is the only illness more common than Norovirus and according to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) there are more than 20-million cases of Norovirus annually.

Norovirus spreads quickly whenever there are many people in small areas, such as dormitories, nursing homes, hotels, restaurants…and cruise ships. Norovirus is not a "cruise ship" virus and it is obviously not limited to cruise ships. It is mostly a result of guests setting sail sick…and then spreading it around. So why are we always hearing about it?

Unlike land-based hotels, motels and resorts - health officials are required to track illnesses on ships which means outbreaks are found and reported more quickly at sea. What should you do to prevent getting ill?

Wash your hands - a lot - with hot water and soap for 20-seconds and dry hands thoroughly when done. Other than that - use your own judgment. You may want to limit person-to-person contact - although I always shake hands with the Captain and his officers. When going ashore drink only bottled water (from ship is best) ; avoid ice-cubes ; be sure all food is well-cooked and do not eat raw shellfish, food from street vendors and unpasteurized dairy products.

On a recent Holland America "Zuiderdam" Panama Canal cruise, I had the opportunity to interview Janet Skanes, RN & Chief Medical Officer and Dr. Emily Luza. Nurse Skanes and Dr. Luza were part of a five person medical team - 2 MD's and 3 RN's - onboard "Zuiderdam" for every cruise. Although quite obvious to me, both women stressed how much they love their jobs and how proud they are of the excellent medical care given to passengers and crew onboard "Zuiderdam".

Q - How long are your onboard work/assignment contracts?
A - Four to six months on - 2 months off.

Q. - What are your medical specialties.
A - (Janet) - I am an emergency room nurse and Dr. Luza is an adult internal medicine specialist. Holland America Line hosts several mandatory medical conferences for updating our extensive and consistent quality of care for all passengers and crew. All of our medical professionals have extensive emergency room and internal medicine/primary care credentials.

Q - What are the most frequent illnesses you treat?
A - Upper respiratory infections, cuts needing stitches , sprains & broken bones , general pain and chronic, ongoing care. But of course, we've seen it all and have the capability to stabilize and give great comfort to our patients. We have modern medical equipment plus a very comprehensive lab and pharmacy onboard all of our ships.

Q - What about something more serious, like a heart attack or diabetic shock?
A - Again, we have a well equipped infirmary and a very high level of care - we are prepared to handle all levels of emergencies.

Q - You haven't listed sea-sickness.
A - Seasickness is not the issue it was years ago thanks to the stabilizers and technology on our modern ships.

Q - What is your best medical advice for cruisers?
A - Wash your hands thoroughly and frequently , be sure to pack all necessary medications and be confident that if you become ill, you are in very good hands.

Does a medical career at sea sound like something you would may want to do? According to Erik Elvejord, Director of Public Relations for Holland America, interested medical professionals should send an updated copy of their resume to: Medical_Resume@HollandAmerica.com  

Holland America Line is a very popular and award-winning, premium cruise line circumnavigating the world. With a fleet of 15 ships offering more than 500 cruises to 415 ports in 98 countries - Holland America features a "Signature of Excellence" onboard all sailings. An excellent value for your vacation dollar, Holland America is a particularly good choice for cruises in Alaska, Europe and the Panama Canal. www.hollandamerica.com