MADMAN ON THE BRIDGE
MUTINY! That would be the verdict against me if my diagnosis of the captain’s condition was wrong. As a green young doctor on my maiden voyage, I had to decide: was he merely an eccentric— or would we all become the victims of a
WHEN I DECIDED to become a doctor I realized that my life would be less exciting, perhaps, than that of TV’s Ben Casey or Dr. Kildare but might still have its share of round-the-clock emergencies and tense dramas in the operating room. What I didn't expect was that my first professional appointment would make me responsible for saving a ten-thousand-ton ship, carrying nearly a thousand passengers and crew, from being wrecked by a captain gone mad.
Many young doctors are tempted to go to sea because the life is reputed to be a soft touch: there's no one to look over their shoulders and no competition for expensive practices. But as my own bizarre adventure proved, an ocean voyage can be turned into a waking nightmare.
It began on September 12, 1951, when I joined Canadian Pacific's S.S. Beaverbrae in Montreal as a one-trip replacement for the regular ship's surgeon. who was going on leave. It looked like a lazy sunny cruise with all expenses paid. 1 was twenty-seven, fresh out of surgical residency with just one relatively simple appendectomy to my credit as a surgeon, and naïve enough to believe that if 1 was liberal with the laxatives 1 could spend the five-week voyage to Antwerp. Bremen and back to Montreal lounging on deck, soaking up the sun.
But shortly after we sailed and headed out into the Atlantic my confidence was rudely shaken. The chief officer, Leonard Johnston, a disciplinarian with little time for doctors, particularly young ones, informed me coldly that eight hundred immigrants drawm from German refugee camps would be coming aboard at Bremen. They would likely be in various stages of ill health, he said, and it w'ould be my job to sec that none died during the voyage home to Canada.
Then, on the second day at sea, 1 discovered that Captain Alexander Kennedy, master of the Beaverbrae, was ill with a sickness 1 couldn't diagnose with any certainty.
Kennedy had been a deckhand in World War 1. a captain in the second. The climb from fo’castle to captain's quarters over twenty rough years, coupled with the strain of command in the badly mauled Murmansk and Atlantic convoys, had etched deep lines into his gaunt bronzed face. Tall, erect, with dark grey-flecked hair and hard blue eyes, he appeared awesomely tough, fit and competent in my inexperienced eyes.
“I'm fifty-two and never had a day's illness,” he told me at our first meeting in his cabin. “Three months ago I started getting these occasional feelings of nausea accompanied by bouts of vomiting. I've just spent two weeks at the Montreal General Hospital
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Without explanation he changed our course—now we were headed for the rocks
having a checkup. They told me I was in fine shape. But yesterday the nausea came back and I can't eat.”
While examining him I wondered if overwork and overstrain might be responsible, but quickly rejected this possibility on the ground that the Montreal General would have taken it into account before giving him a clean bill of health. A stomach ulcer was possible, but he had none of the symptoms other than nausea. A tumor of the stomach was also worth considering, but there was no loss of weight as is usually the case. As I discarded one theory after another I realized the limitations of a doctor at sea. Though we had a small, reasonably wellequipped hospital on board there was no X ray, no radiologist. Without X ray there was no way of making a definite diagnosis.
The examination took more than an hour. At the end I told the captain that he and his stomach needed rest, and suggested that he should let the chief officer assume mote responsibility for running the ship.
“No chance of that, doctor,” he said. “We’re at sea. I’m in command, and the chief officer’s got enough on his plate already. On top of that we’re going to have quite a job nursing eight hundred immigrants back to Canada."
Then I noticed the bottle of antacid I had given him two days before. It had contained enough to last for two weeks. Now it was empty.
I was filled with sudden foreboding. For it indicated that the captain was in greater pain than I thought, and I began worrying that his trouble might be vastly more serious than a minor disorder.
During the next few days of pitching and tossing through heavy Atlantic seas I wrestled with the riddle. Then came the first of a series of fantastic incidents that were to plague me for the rest of the voyage.
We docked in Antwerp at night on September 21. A group of men were huddled on the jetty, watching the lines being made fast. As the gangway was lowered, one of them shouted in English, “This is the port medical officer speaking. No one is allowed ashore. You are in quarantine until further notice.”
He came aboard, shook my hand brusquely and said with ill-concealed impatience, “You’ve dragged me away from the best party I’ve been to in years. So let’s get this over with quickly.”
I must have gazed at him stupidly, because he suddenly thrust a slip of paper at me. It was a signal from the Beaverbrae saying, “Loaded with infectious cases. Request medical assistance on arrival.”
I was appalled. What was the meaning of this mysterious unsigned signal? I had certainly not sent it, and only a madman would have the Beaverbrae placed in quarantine at immense cost in harbor dues, delayed schedules and lost cargoes without good reason. And though this was my first voyage as a
ship's doctor I could vouch for the sanity of everyone aboard — or so I thought.
While the Belgian medical officer waited in my cabin, I reported to the captain.
He barely acknowledged my presence until 1 showed him the signal. “Why wasn't this reported to me sooner, doctor?” he asked softly. “This is very serious, you know. How many cases have we got?”
“None, sir. We’re a healthy ship. There has to be a mistake. Maybe there’s been a communications foul-up ashore.”
“Then tell them that. You’re the doctor. For heaven’s sake, don’t bother me with such details.”
If the captain could be so unconcerned about quarantine and a false signal, there was little I could do or say. I returned to my cabin, argued with the Belgian authorities until they finally accepted my word that we
were in fact healthy.
The incident was over, but the
question of who had sent the strange signal remained unresolved.
Next morning I called on the captain to suggest an investigation into the origin of the signal. He brushed the idea aside, and proceeded to complain that although my medicine
seemed to have stopped his attacks of nausea, he was now suffering from
severe and prolonged headaches.
I asked when they had started. “Last night,” he replied. “And that’s surprising, because 1 went to bed early, about ten o’clock, so as to get a good night’s sleep.”
I was stabbed by sudden suspicion.
He had not been in bed by ten o’clock. We had not docked until after eleven and it was close to midnight when I had called on him in his cabin.
Was there something seriously wrong with the captain’s mind? Or was he just suffering from a temporary loss of memory? If the captain was deteriorating mentally he could endanger the ship. And if that happened I would be responsible.
During the two-day trip along the European coast to Bremen, the captain continued to suffer penetrating headaches, but he was no longer bothered by nausea. He appeared fit and cheerful and his behavior was normal. My fears subsided and I drew comfort from the thought that we would soon be on our way home.
It took about twenty-four hours to get the immigrants settled into roughand-ready quarters set up in the holds. Some of our passengers were so old it appeared possible that the ship might be their final destination; others were babies, miraculously surviving after so long without decent diets.
We sailed on September 24, and I spent the first two days touring the holds, handing out medicines for a variety of minor disorders and looking for signs of serious illness. There were few complaints and I was congratulating myself on good fortune when, late on October 1, the captain sent for me urgently.
He was lying on his bunk, gripping the handrails, anguished and in pain. “I nearly passed out on the bridge,” he gasped. "I had a ringing sensation in my ears, and my vision blurred. What the hell is the trouble, doctor?”
It was a question I couldn’t answer.
Next morning I heard from other officers that Captain Kennedy was behaving oddly on his occasional visits to the bridge, and that the chief officer was quietly assuming many of the captain’s duties. The two men were close friends and had been shipmates for years. I saw the captain as often as I could. The headaches were still there, he was liable to sudden attacks of vomiting, and the ringing sensation in his ears kept coming back with spells of dizziness. But he appeared to be behaving normally and my examinations continued to produce negative findings.
On the fourth day we were in midAtlantic, nearing the halfway point of our homeward voyage. We were to land the immigrants at Quebec, five days away. It was a warm balmy day with light seas, and the captain had been strolling round the deck. Suddenly he climbed to the bridge and ordered a change of course without explanation. When he went below the officer on watch projected the new course on a chart. We were, he found, now headed for a small town a hundred miles inland from the St. Lawrence.
When the chief officer heard about it, he immediately countermanded the captain’s order and resumed the proper course for Quebec. That evening 1 decided it was time to talk with Chief Officer Leonard Johnston to find out if there had been other odd incidents that I knew nothing about.
He admitted that the alteration of course had been irrational but declined to discuss the captain’s state of mind. “Captain Kennedy is tired, needs rest,” Johnston said curtly. “That's all there is to it and 1 don't want you telling anyone differently. Rumors spread fast in a ship like this and we don't want the crew or the passengers worrying about the safety of the ship.”
“What would have happened had we stayed on the course ordered by the captain?” I asked.
“We'd probably have ended up on some rocks off Newfoundland,” he replied.
There was no point in arguing further. I didn't really know what was wrong, but 1 had established that the captain could endanger the ship. I questioned other officers without too much success, until the purser, discussing the captain’s background, mentioned that he had gone to school in a country town in Quebec province.
Suddenly, the first real clue to the mystery clicked into place. It was the same town that the captain had altered course toward that afternoon.
Captain Kennedy’s behavior was normal until the following day, our fifth from Bremen, when I received a message asking me to sec him in his cabin.
“D'you know how many life jackets are on board?” he asked.
“No, 1 don’t, sir,” 1 replied. “But I'm told there are plenty.”
“You’re wrong. You don't have the slightest idea of what’s going on around here. Still, you’re the only one
I can trust. I want you to collect all the life jackets in the ship and store them in your cabin. Never know when we may need them. Let me know when you've rounded them up.”
When 1 returned to the sanity of my own cabin after so eerie a scene,
I knew I had yet another clue in an imposing — and still growing — chain of evidence. The long, persistent, recurring bouts of nausea and vomiting followed by headaches, the dizzy spells and ringing sensations in the ears all fitted the pattern. Now I knew it had to be the captain who had sent that false signal to Antwerp, probably by coding it up himself so that the radio operator wouldn't know what the message said. And it was more than a whim that made him change the course of the ship: it was a sudden compulsion to return to his childhood and his school. Then the life-jacket incident revealed that he had reached a stage of suspicion and distrust.
If I was wrong it was mutiny
Even ignoring the medical side of the problem for the moment, what about the command of the ship? What about the safety of the crew and the passengers? What about the chief officer? Should he, or 1. be responsible for leaving the captain in command?
I had no idea about the legalities of the situation or of the custom at sea when a captain shows signs of madness. 1 was sure, however, that no matter what the consequences we had no right to endanger the safety of our passengers.
The following morning 1 cornered the chief officer in his cabin and told him 1 believed the captain was in a dangerous condition.
“You’re the one who's crazy, doc." he said with such cold emphasis that I knew the next four days to Quebec were going to be difficult. "I know the captain better than anyone aboard, a lot better than you," he continued, “and I can assure you he’s not losing his mind. 1 spoke with him this morning and he was entirely rational. You had better just forget about it. When we reach Quebec, you'd better see a psychiatrist as well as the captain."
It dawned on me that captains are not easily removed from their commands at sea. They must be obviously mad before their authority can be challenged. Mutiny is an ugly word, and that is the crime if a captain is relieved of command without overwhelming evidence of insanity.
I decided to check Captain Kennedy’s condition again. His cabin door was half open and 1 waited a few moments after knocking for his summons to enter. There was no reply, so I walked in. He was crouched low in a chair, with one ear pressed hard against his radio.
“Don’t disturb me, doctor.” he said. “Eve been hearing all sorts of things on the radio. Stay and listen if you like.”
1 looked at the radio. It was off.
After dinner that evening I stood uncertainly on deck for an hour or so, the wind whipping at my face and the spray drenching me with every pitch of the ship. Then I went to the radio room on the boat deck and sent the following signal to Canadian Pacific headquarters in Montreal:
“I have this day, September 30, 1951, relieved the Master of his command due to sickness and his resultant inability to command this ship.”
Once irrevocably committed, 1 informed the chief officer. 1 have rarely seen a man so angry. He called me a fool, accused me of taking leave of my senses and added savagely, “Do you realize what you have done? Do you know what changing the command of a ship at sea actually means? How will you explain yourself in Montreal when the captain is seen to be perfectly normal? And let me tell you I saw him only a few minutes ago and there was nothing wrong with him.”
When his anger subsided he looked at me pityingly. “1 should feel sorry for you, doc. You are going to be in plenty of trouble if there’s the slightest chance of a mistake. The other officers will have to know, of course. But you'd better be sure the crew never find out. Most of all, the captain mustn't be told.”
I felt very young, very inexperienced and very uncertain as I returned to my own cabin.
We were four days out from Quebec when a brief pointed reply to my signal was received: “Send complete report of your actions and of Captain Kennedy's illness immediately.”
I spent the whole day setting down in writing the sequence of events that had occurred during the voyage, making particular reference to the captain's reversible symptomatology. And for the first time. I put on the record the diagnosis that had begun as a faint suspicion in the back of my mind and had grown, clue by clue, into nearcertainty: in my professional opinion, our captain was suffering from a brain tumor. The captain was rapidly going quite mad, yet appeared normal for much of the time. For this reason the chief officer declined to officially inform him of the formal change in command. But it took place automatically because the captain’s headaches confined him to his cabin to such an extent that there was little risk of dual authority clashing and creating embarrassing situations.
On the few occasions that the captain did appear on deck he acted so naturally that it seemed as if the chief officer's scornful predictions of my fate would be correct. When we arrived at Quebec an apparently sane captain and an unhappy protesting doctor would be taken to hospital together.
We were only forty-eight hours out when 1 saw the captain rational for the last time. We sat in his cabin, talking about the uncertain destiny of the immigrants once they landed in Canada. He was visibly troubled, appearing to be groping to reach some obscure point via a devious route. I asked if there was something special on his mind, and he replied, “I seem to be getting blank spots recently. I've been trying to recall this morning what I did last night. 1 can't do it. Yet 1 feel better now than at any time during this entire trip . No headaches, no nausea, nothing! But I m not an absentminded type and these blank spots worry me. How many days are we out of Quebec, doctor?" Then he clutched the side oí his desk and looked at me pathetically. “That’s an
odd question for a captain to ask a doctor, isn't it? Of course, we’re just. . His voice trailed off. Obviously he couldn't remember.
A few hours later the chief officer came to see me. “I thought you should know,” he said, “that the captain has just been working out our position and has charted the correct course for Quebec. I checked it.”
He left me acutely aware of the irony of the situation. A man's life was at stake. If I was right, the captain would probably die. His chances of surviving were at best only fifty percent. If I was wrong, he would probably live. In such a position how could I possibly pray that 1 was right?
It was Thursday morning when we entered the quiet waters of the St. Lawrence, due to dock in Quebec
within twenty-four hours. I saw the captain in the afternoon and told him he would have to go into hospital for another examination. He mumbled incoherently, and I gathered he was suffering extreme dizziness. Later in the evening a messenger burst into my cabin, saying the captain was sick. I rushed to his quarters and found him lying unconscious on his bunk.
“Captain,” I called out. “Captain, can you hear me?” It was quite useless. Throughout the remainder of the night only the occasional twitching of his body relieved the deathlike silence.
About 2 a.m. the chief officer came down from the bridge to share my vigil in the captain's cabin. Slowly, as if groping for the right words, he said, “I'm sorry, doc. I've been wrong, and you were right. I guess there's not much more to say.”
There wasn’t, and after a slight pause he asked, “Will he die tonight?”
“1 don't know.”
"Well, we’ll be alongside in Quebec soon. I’ve asked for an ambulance to be waiting."
I stayed with Captain Kennedy until we were docked, then accompanied him in the ambulance to the Enfant Jesus hospital. A neurosurgeon operated on him in the afternoon and found an inoperable tumor, a type that takes root in the silent untouchable part of the brain. This explained why the earlier examination at the Montreal General had failed to locate his trouble. It would be just a matter of time before the captain died —and he did, just two months later.
I have never been back to sea as a doctor. Nor would 1 advise any young medic in search of an easy comfort-
able life to take up the career of a ship’s doctor. In such a job, a man is always on duty, always on his own. Emergencies occur as frequently at sea as on shore, and at sea a doctor cannot turn for help to a great hospital teeming with experts and filled with all the modern equipment needed to diagnose and operate. He cannot seek the advice of colleagues, or place his patients in the care of specialists. He must be a semispecialist in all things concerning medicine, and accept ultimate responsibility for the life of everyone aboard.
And, as I discovered all too vividly on my one and only voyage aboard the S.S. Beaverbrae, some decisions and diagnoses that you make can turn out to be right when you hope so desperately that they will prove to be wrong. ★