Decorated sailor, Liz Baugh, has turned her Royal Naval medical career into essential first aid for sailors. Dick Durham sat down with Liz to find out more.
I find myself at the refectory of London’s St Martins-in-the-Fields Church, quite fitting I think with its long and illustrious association with the Admiralty, because Liz, 44, spent a decade in the Royal Navy as a medic.
During that time, she worked in war zones, on NATO exercises and helped elite units, like the Royal Marine Commandos, better their chances of surviving injury.
Since then, she has lectured in many parts of the world, from Mumbai to Jordan but now concentrates on her business, redsquaremedical.com which provides medical services, advice and consultation to the leisure boating industry.
Born in Sibford Gower, Oxfordshire in 1977, Liz grew up listening to bedtime stories from her father Andrew who worked as a Navigator in the Merchant Navy.
“He would show me a photograph of him in a dinghy, or covered in grease and this would spark off a story,” Liz told Ocean Sailor.
Despite the lure of the sea, however, rural Oxfordshire provided other distractions and her first love was horse-riding, although falls from her mount put paid to an early career choice of becoming a concert pianist.
“I had too many broken fingers”, she says with a smile.
But eventually kayaking and swimming in local reservoirs led her back to the water and some sailing with friends on the Solent.
Making enquiries about the Royal Navy, Liz hoped to ‘map the ocean’ but there was an 18-month waiting list for the hydrographer course.
Fortunately for the rest of us, she was also interested in ‘how the human body works’ and the fact that she became fascinated by how the human liver can regenerate itself.
We all know that exercise and proper nutrition are essential for good health and also that smoking and heavy drinking are not. Today smoking is completely banned from RN ships. Alcohol is another matter, and a tot of rum is still issued on the Queen’s Birthday!
A ship, being an enclosed unit, means that viruses have a field day. “Ear, nose and throat issues are among the most common infections I deal with. But the damp and salt air produce skin problems, too.”
Mental health has also become a major issue for ship crews during long contracts.
“I’ve tried to understand it,” said Liz, “but it is very complex.”
Lack of contact with families and shore life is one of the major factors and most shipping companies now ensure that video calls can be set up, but they may be expensive. Receiving a ‘bluey’ – an Air Mail letter – helps but they are obviously not an instant solution.
In the past, Liz has been paid visits by ‘sick’ sailors who she can find nothing wrong with. “After a while and asking a few delicate questions I discover they feel they should ‘man up’ and not show they are feeling emotional. But that’s what it is: they are under too much stress and are feeling homesick as a result.”
Liz feels going to sea is a vocation and that some people are not suited to ocean life.
The COVID-19 pandemic also exacerbated feelings of isolation with the cessation of shore leave.
The other major concern afloat is the wear and tear on joints as sailors compensate for the ‘moving platform’ which is the pitch and roll of a ship at sea.
“Dodgy knees, ankles, backs and shoulders, are common complaints,” she said.
While serving on HMS Chatham, Liz sailed to Sierra Leone, where UK forces helped bring about an end to the civil war there. Liz was involved with the task force sent ashore to Freetown to establish security following the kidnap of United Nations personnel.
For her part in that operation, she was awarded the Operational Service Medal.
During her service aboard HMS Manchester, she helped provide medical support to sailors involved in NATO operations. It was while she was aboard HMS Manchester that Liz was taken ill herself with suspected meningitis. She was taken ashore to hospital and an X-ray diagnosis determined pneumonia.
A portion of her military career was dedicated to providing medical support to crews on minesweepers, fishery protection vessels and RN diving units. She became responsible for Force Protection for these vessels, virtually single-handed.
“Picture this,” she said, “when I started out, no one had been in the post for several months …I had to start from scratch and with a huge backpack full of medical equipment and – on my bicycle – pedal from ship to ship, one by one to get them all medically fit.”
The job culminated in Liz being responsible for the medical preparedness of the small ships fleet within the Senior Service for the Iraq attack in 2003!
Today a fleet of SUVs do the job Liz started.
Once her career in the Royal Navy ended she turned to lecturing, having taken a course at Warsash Maritime Academy and began, with her ex-Royal Navy Marine Engineer husband, Mick, a training and consultancy business
She is able to juggle her responsibilities at home in Hampshire’s Meon Valley where the couple live with their two daughters, Alice and Sophie, with small sailing trips in friends’ boats along the South Coast including the popular annual Round the Island Race which circumnavigates the Isle of Wight.
Her clients have included the Jubilee Sailing Trust, which runs a square-rigger for handicapped sailors; Sir Robin Knox-Johnston’s famous Clipper Round the World Race crews; and the World Cruising Club which runs the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (ARC) among other major yachting events.
The growth in landlubbers wanting to go to sea is, Liz reckons, “Because everybody is either running away from something or trying to find something.”
And she feels that the Royal Navy’s great strength is that from day one everybody is treated equally with no regard for class, ethnicity or education.
“There’s something very healing about being on the water,” she says.
At sea there are limited resources, limited people, limited space, and so much of the medical equipment is very expensive, so training in First Aid is crucial.
Also, the big races or the ARC which are ‘bucket list’ voyages for those seeking adventure are very different from a young family setting off with two children.
Older crew may take much longer to recover from a fall than a young child for instance and the correct splints, the right kind of pain relief, and individual training are all important, which is why Liz tailors every piece of medical support and equipment to the sailor. Grab bags are tailored to accommodate each different sailor. For instance, a diabetic will need blood sugar medication in the pouch.
Her company also partners with Praxes Medical Group to offer a 24/7 ‘telemedical service’ so that ‘we can talk you through it’ for vessels that cannot encompass an Emergency Ward!
Again, the most common complaints come from ear, nose and throat illness, or muscle/skeletal issues. Infections of the urinary tract are also quite common.
Liz’s most recent customers have included scientists heading off to the Arctic for exploration trips seeking gas and oil. She also looks after Antarctic expedition vessels seeking adventures as far south as ships can reach. For this, she has lectured them on cold water immersion and general polar medicine.
She has studied the findings of cold water legend, Wim Hoff, who has promoted the health benefits of swimming naked under the ice! She has also picked up paramedic tips from Rachel Smith who has rowed the Atlantic.
Anyone preparing to set off on an ocean voyage needs to start planning their medical needs up to 9 months before departure. This is because registration to obtain licences for certain pharmaceuticals takes time to obtain and yacht registration documentation has to be verified.
“You can’t just buy antibiotics, different drugs for certain medical conditions and certain skin creams over the counter. Brexit has also made certain medication harder to obtain as air freight now prioritises emergency aid, making lead times longer,” Liz said.
We finish our tea and walk across the epitaphs of the long dead, many of whom had their lifespans determined by the lack of such medicines at all.
If you’d like to read more, Liz’s blog page has many articles covering all sectors of the maritime world:
She has also been part of the trials team for the new Advanced Water Rescue Manikin: