Underwater medicine a deep skill

This article has photo gallery Published on LEUT Harley Slatter (author), LSIS Tom Gibson (photographer)

Topic(s): HMAS Gascoyne (M85), Submarines (SSG), Training Authority - Submarines, Exercise PACIFIC PARTNERSHIP

Petty Officer Medic (Underwater) David Grace conducts hyperbaric training inside Submarine and Underwater Medicine Unit's hyperbaric chamber at HMAS Penguin, Sydney. (photo: LSIS Tom Gibson)
Petty Officer Medic (Underwater) David Grace conducts hyperbaric training inside Submarine and Underwater Medicine Unit's hyperbaric chamber at HMAS Penguin, Sydney.

Lodged at HMAS Penguin in Sydney, Navy’s Submarine and Underwater Medicine Unit has many roles providing healthcare for Australian Defence Force divers and training underwater medics.

The cylindrical hyperbaric chamber, in use since 1985, is the last of its kind in the southern hemisphere and can go ‘deeper’ than more modern chambers.

Lieutenant Commander Douglas Falconer, Officer-in-Charge of the unit spoke about just how much use the chamber gets.

“We have previously used the chamber up to 130 times in a year for a range of different purposes,” Lieutenant Commander Falconer said.

“We do emergency recompressions, precautionary treatments, suitability tests for divers and submariners, maintenance and testing equipment used at depth.”

Lieutenant Commander Falconer said that the unit only treats diving-specific injuries every couple of months or more.

“We haven’t had a catastrophic injury for a long time. I think that is because of better diving practices and a better understanding of diving medicine,” he said.

The Unit’s experience in the underwater medicine field is also recognised in the civilian world with close knowledge-sharing relationships among a number of Sydney’s hospitals.
The Unit’s expertise is also shared further afield through involvement in international exercises such as PACIFIC PARTNERSHIP and a recent invitation to talk to the NATO Underwater Working Group about hyperbaric medicine and diving chambers.

“Because our divers dive a lot I think our underwater medicine skills develop quickly to match the operational activities we’re involved in,” Lieutenant Commander Falconer said.

Training programs see a small, specialised groups of sailors train each year to qualify as underwater medics who can post to Mine Hunters, Clearance Diving Teams and Defence’s Tactical Assault Group.

Able Seaman Medic (Underwater) Brittany Rollason really enjoys the role.

“Diving is a close knit group so you really get know the people you are working with in the underwater community,” Able Seaman Rollason said.

“Over the last few months I have been involved in supporting Clearance Diver selection testing and teaching Army Work Divers in Brisbane about basic life support, diving illnesses and conditions.”

Able Seaman Rollason is soon to post to sea in minehunter HMAS Gascoyne.

“I am looking forward to consolidating everything I’ve learned and put that into more of a practical aspect of underwater medicine,” she said.

“It will be great to be back out with the fleet and do some primary healthcare.”

Along with the specialist focus, the Submarine and Underwater Medicine Unit is also the garrison health facility for Australian Defence Force divers treating everyday issues including the usual bumps, scrapes and ailments seen in most medical centres.