The virtual hospital for the Volvo Ocean Race forms the centrepiece of medical care
Racing yachts are powerful and brutal pieces of equipment and the environments in which the Volvo Ocean Race competitors are asked to perform are the most demanding. Keeping the crew fit and healthy is often a preventative rather than a curative process. But injuries can occur, infections can attack. All the yachts are equipped with telemedicine facilities to allow doctors ashore to direct treatment on
There are no ambulances waiting trackside if an emergency arises in the Volvo Ocean Race. But help is at hand in the form of planning, training, and the ability to lock into the increasing use of cameras and satellites to help diagnose the action required and monitor its execution. Cybermedicine has come to the Volvo Ocean Race.
The first line of communication would be the telephone and e-mail, but the same cameras that are placed on every yacht to bring back pictures of the racing can also be used by land-based experts to help those on board treat injuries. The conditions may be far removed from the stability of an operating theatre, but the additional visual link
through what is effectively a special web site could provide vital additional guidance. Incoming calls from the yachts at sea are automatically routed to the specialist in charge via a database. This keeps response time to a minimum. In emergency situations, the hospital in Plymouth is available for the crews 24/7. The driving force behind the web based database, Meinolf Goertzen said, "We are pioneering new grounds with this approach. It comes from European Astronaut programs I have been involved with. This is an exciting new field for medicine." With the database running the support, the team has created a virtual hospital, where images, reports and even videos can be sent from one specialist to another. In fact they have created a virtual hospital with the best at hand even in the remotest places on earth. Privacy is guaranteed as only medics and crews have access to their medical files.
The initiative of a multinational and interdisciplinary team, put in place after the last Whitbread, is led by Dr. Tim Spalding, a British orthopaedic surgeon and the race medical adviser, Dr. Rudi Rodriguez, an American who was also the doctor for the Chessie Racing syndicate in 1997-1998.
An integral part of the team is physiotherapist and qualified Chiropractor Timo Malinen from Finland while Mark Thomson, a general practitioner who is also an experienced ocean racer will act as the local sailing medical expert in England. They are joined by Robert Sinclair, a consultant anaesthetist from Sweden. In Germany, the orthopaedic and sports surgeon Meinholf Goertzen has brought in the telemedicine component, supported by Volvo Cars Germany.
"Last time there was one Doctor in the race and that was me", remembers Dr. Rudi Rodrigues. "We have made huge steps forward thanks to the support we got from Volvo. The group that is assembled now are specialists in their fields. A crew in need of help is not talking to a GP but to the best."
Each boat carries a specially prepared medical kit. It contains everything from a pocket mouth-to-mouth resuscitator to bandages and splints, analgesics and anti-biotics, eye damage treatments, drugs, and saline drips. At least two members of every crew have also been trained to use sutures, staples and glue in the treatment of wounds. Three teams (djuice, Tyco and illbruck) took advantage of a training camp held in Annapolis earlier this year, the others used facilities in their home countries. Designated crewmembers on all the boats have a basic knowledge of dentistry and preventative medicine.
Along with all the equipment comes a book and CD-rom relating medical problems and injuries with the diagnosis and cure. Videos incorporated in the interactive viewer remind and offer guidance on how to suture, inject, make a spline and even to perform a Cricothyrotomy (Emergency Airway) and Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (CPR).
Sailing with the fleet, although acting primarily as Navigator on Amer Sports One is Roger Nilsson, a veteran from five previous races. In an emergency situation, he might be the next closest available.
"The demands on these sailors are amazing," says Rodrigues. "They burn up to 5,000 calories a day on some legs, which gives you an idea of the stresses they are under. They lose muscle mass and the result is fatigue."
They are also vulnerable to skin problems caused by the heat, or cold, or humidity, all of which are made worse by the constant contact with salt water. From a research point of view, he adds: "You have an isolated community with requirements that are a lot more acute than most on shore."
But, while treatment has to be immediate and effective, the boat will also, except in a case of extreme emergency, keep on racing, the crew working four-hour shifts, round the clock, for up to 30 days at a time.
Multiplying 12 people on eight boats each covering 32,700 nautical miles "means we get 3,000,000 miles of offshore experience on the effects on the human body," adds Rodrigues.
The Volvo Ocean Race Starts on 23 September 2001, Southampton, Great Britain and finishes on 9 June 2002, Kiel, Germany.