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In the navy

It was action stations when Surgeon Lieutenant Commander Suzanne Porter was ordered to set up a GP surgery on one of the Royal Navy's most technologically advanced warships

It was action stations when Surgeon Lieutenant Commander Suzanne Porter was ordered to set up a GP surgery on one of the Royal Navy's most technologically advanced warships

My ambition to join the Royal Navy started when my father suffered a near-fatal accident while I was training at the University of St Andrews. This made me realise I wanted to get variety and as much as possible out of life so ­ coupled with a passion for sailing ­ the navy seemed the perfect career choice.

Since joining in 1994, my posts have included medical officer on ships deployed to the North Atlantic, the Caribbean, the Med-iterranean, West Africa and the Falklands ­ as well as shore-based jobs. Then, in January 2003, I landed the challenging position of principal medical officer on HMS Albion.She is the first of her class and, with HMS Bulwark, her sister ship, is one of the new amphibious assault ships ­ termed a 'landing platform dock'. They are the most technologically advanced vessels in the Royal Navy, capable of launching assault troops by landing craft and helicopter simultaneously.

Equipping medical complex

I joined Albion in the shipbuilder's yard in Barrow-in-Furness to start equipping the medical complex ­ comprising a dispensary, treatment/operating room, reception area, consulting room, and six-bed inpatient facility. There was also a full dental surgery and three medical stores. The facility can operate as a GP surgery, an A&E, and can convert to an operating theatre in times of war.

The first 12 months were momentous, with the ship being commissioned, trained and exercised through the full spectrum of her capability. After initial sea trials, the next obstacle to prepare for was basic operational sea training (BOST). This involved making sure everyone on board was fully trained to deal with any eventuality in addition to amphibious landings.

The culmination of months of practice came in October with staff sea check ­ where the ship is presented to admiral's standards and all aspects of our work are scrutinised. For the medical department this meant having to have all our protocols, clinical governance, medical documentation and stores in order. The team's hard work was justifiably rewarded with a grade of 'good'.

Following this, the ship then went on to complete the four-week sea phase of BOST, which put her through all manner of emergencies, some conducted at action stations (when the ship is in a heightened state of readiness to fight war).

During action stations, chefs and stewards take on the role of the first-aid parties, a valuable role that is controlled by the medical team. On completion of BOST, we were deemed ready to be employed more widely.

Further training and exercising during the remainder of 2003 and early 2004 saw Albion deploy to Norway, conducting exercises with the Royal Marines, and operating as a command platform for the first time. From then on she was deemed to be at sufficient level of readiness to be available at five days' notice for operations anywhere and became the fleet amphibious flagship.

Deploying to the US on a multinational exercise was the first real opportunity Albion had to prove herself in command of a large task group. I was medical adviser to the commodore amphibious task group, and also responsible for medical assets in the task group, which comprised 13 RN and RFA ships, including the RFA Argus (the primary casualty receiving facility) with 25-bed capacity and several consultants on board.

Other duties in 2005 included Dover for the inauguration of the Admiral of the Cinque Ports; Liverpool for the relaunch of the sea cadet corps; Spain to promote British defence industries; and Jersey for the anniversary of the liberation of the Channel Islands.

The challenges we faced

The highlight of the year was the international fleet review in Portsmouth to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar, when Albion acted as command headquarters for all afloat-assets (including co-ordination of medical assets).

From the medical point of view, we have faced numerous challenges in setting up the facility, ranging from occupational and environmental health issues; noise monitoring (habitability and workplace assessments), monitoring fumes in the dock/vehicle deck; setting up clinical governance on board; preventive medicine; travel medicine; and supporting the ongoing medical needs of the ship's company.

The normal ship's company is 410-strong, rising to just over 1,000 when fully embarked with battle commanders and troops. One particular challenge was organising the mass vaccination of 2,000-plus personnel at risk of mumps during a large exercise.

Suzanne Porter left HMS Albion in August and is currently deputy principal medical officer on HMS Raleigh, the initial training establishment for recruits joining the Royal Navy

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