"Is there a doctor in the house?" someone asked during a boating lecture 8 years ago at Orange Coast College. One was needed--not to treat a patient, but to teach a medical course designed for boaters who spend days or weeks at sea.
Dr. Don McGillis, a physician and lifelong boater who was in the audience that night, answered the call and soon afterward began teaching his own class for boaters, called "Medicine at Sea."
McGillis, who spent more than 20 years in general practice in Newport Beach, says the 9-week course was designed for people who intend to take extended offshore trips. Enrollment is still open for the current class, which began last Wednesday at the Orange Coast College Sailing Center in Newport Beach.
McGillis teaches everything from taking vital signs to suturing, treating broken bones, giving injections and treating third-degree burns. "We teach suturing by actually suturing up chicken pieces," he says. "We give injections to oranges and grapefruits, and we actually make plaster splints."
The chief emphasis in his class, however, is on what he calls functional anatomy. "The average person should know more about their body," he says. "In this class, we cover the head, eyes, ears, nose and throat; the lymph nodes as indicators of diseases; how to differentiate heart problems from other problems; how to ensure adequate hydration and adequate bowel function."
The most common medical problems for boaters on long trips, McGillis says, are broken toes, dehydration and burns.
For a broken toe, McGillis recommends putting a pad between the broken one and the toe next to it, then taping the two together. For dehydration, he recommends drinking a mixture of salt, baking soda, water and a bit of lemon extract for flavoring.
One of the first signs of dehydration is irritability, McGillis says. "When the temperature is up, the humidity is up and your mood is down, it is time to increase your salt--and water--intake. So pass out the pretzels."
"To prevent dehydration," he reminds his students, "you need to drink about 2 quarts of water a day."
In treating a burn, McGillis says, the first thing to do is put something cold on it. "Use the coldest thing you have--ice if you have it." Cold sea water will help should there be no ice on board. Students are also taught how to bandage second- and third-degree burns to prevent infection.
"Most burns happen in the galley or occur in rough weather when people put hot coffee or soup in their laps," McGillis says.
Most of his students, McGillis says, want to know about treating hypothermia and how to perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation.
A case of hypothermia--a drop to 95 degrees or less in the body's core temperature--can range from mild to severe. At worst, it can be lethal.
Many of the boaters who die after falling overboard actually succumb to hypothermia rather than simply drown, McGillis says. But it doesn't take falling into the water to be at risk. A boater performing a watch on a cold night in wet clothes can be suffering from hypothermia and not even know it, he points out.
"We teach how to handle the patient who denies he is in trouble," he says, "because in moderate hypothermia people get a little irrational--a little like they are drunk--and they deny anything is wrong."
The best way to diagnose hypothermia is to take the temperature with a rectal thermometer that accurately reads into the high 80s, McGillis says. And the best way to treat the victim, he says, is to put some warm bodies next to him or her.
McGillis does not cover cardiopulmonary resuscitation in his course, but he does recommend that his students take a CPR course.
He reminds his students, however, that not every heart attack victim can be revived with CPR. "It's the best chance you've got, and it is worth a try," he says, "but people get enamored with it and think that no one needs to die from heart attacks if you administer CPR. That isn't true."
Over the 8 years McGillis has been teaching the class, he says, he has heard from at least a dozen former students who have taken extended cruises. One sent a photo of a bandaged hand, but "most of them had few medical problems, and that's probably the way it is always going to be," he says. "People who cruise are stout, independent types."
Although he says there is no first-aid kit on the market that he would recommend to his students, he does help them assemble their own.
"The problem really is not what you have in your first-aid kit; it is knowing how to use it."
Registrations for the current "Medicine at Sea" course will be accepted through Wednesday, when the second class meets. Meetings are 7 to 9 p.m. Wednesdays through May 31 at the Orange Coast College Sailing Center, 1801 W. Coast Highway in Newport Beach. For information call (714) 432-5880. Cost is $58.
Women's Sailing Seminar: The Lido Sailing Club will have a free sailing seminar for women from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. today at 3300 Via Lido, Newport Beach. For information, call (714) 675-0827.
Second in a Series: More than 75 boats are expected to compete in the second race in the Balboa Yacht Club's "66 Series" Sunday. The race will begin at noon off the Newport Beach pier. For information, call (714) 673-3515.
Race Seminar: A seminar on the 42nd annual Ensenada Yacht Race will meet at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Dana Point Yacht Club, 24707 Dana Drive. The seminar is for those who will participate in the April 28 race. For information, call (714) 640-1351.
History Lecture: Historian Ellen Lee will present a free lecture, "From Mud Flats to Yachting Harbor: A History of Newport Beach With a Centennial Emphasis," at noon Monday at the Newport Beach Library, 856 San Clemente Drive. Participants are encouraged to bring lunches. For more information, call (714) 644-3177.