INTERVIEW: Cruise ship nurse Jo Needham on life at sea
Intensive care nurse Jo Needham wanted to travel the world, but didn’t fancy doing it as a skint backpacker. The solution? Nursing on a cruise ship. On the phone from somewhere in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, she tells Gemma Peplow how she’s getting on.
Ship nurse Jo Needham isn’t quite sure what day it is. They all tend to blur into another at sea, she says. Different countries every few days means different time zones and it can all get a little disorientating. Not that she’s complaining. Jo is speaking to More from her cabin aboard the Royal Caribbean Celebrity Century cruise ship, the place she has called home since September.
In the past five months, she has touched the Hubbard Glacier, partied in San Diego, jet-skied in Mexico, soaked up the sun under the palm trees in Hawaii and travelled along the Panama Canal. That’s to name just a few of the many, many amazing places that are now filling her passport with colourful stamps.
It all happened quite suddenly for Jo, getting the job as a ship nurse. It was something she had been mulling over for a while before she finally decided to go for it and sent off her CV.
The company was on the phone the next day. Could she come to London for an interview? Tomorrow? She did. The call came back a day later. She was in.
“I wanted to travel and see the world and I knew I wouldn’t be able to afford to do that without working as I did it,” says Jo, 29.
“My mum went on a cruise last year and spoke to the nurses on board and they’d said it was a really good job, earning money and seeing the world.
“I sent my CV to Royal Caribbean and then it literally all happened in the space of four days. I couldn’t believe it, it all fell into place so easily.
“I was excited and nervous, but it didn’t really seem real at that point, because that was in the January and I didn’t start until September.”
On September 9, Jo left her home in Leicester’s West End and flew to Miami from Heathrow, for a week’s training.
She had finished work in the intensive care unit at Leicester Royal Infirmary a few weeks earlier.
“I didn’t really know what to expect so I was a bit worried that I wouldn’t be able to cope with the work, because I knew it would be different,” she says.
“It was very difficult saying goodbye to everyone and I cried at the airport and a little bit on the plane and then again when I got to Miami.”
After Miami, Jo flew to Alaska, where her contract began. There, she stepped on to the ship, joining 1,800 guests and 900 crew. She is one of three nurses and two doctors on board.
The first few months were tough. She missed home and called family and friends at every opportunity. She wasn’t sure if she was good enough, that she knew everything she needed to know.
But slowly, things got easier. Friends were made and she got into the swing of the job. Now, the time is flying by.
“The first couple of months were really hard,” she says. “Everything was so new and challenging. I was having to do things I’d never done before – you’re not just a nurse, you’re a radiographer, counsellor, a medical secretary, everything.”
The general rule for working hours is two days on, one day off.
“If the hospital is quiet and there aren’t many guests then it’s nice and you get a lot of time to yourself,” says Jo. “Sometimes it’s really busy, though, and you can work for 24 hours. But, as a rule, you get every third day off.
“If your days off fall on port days you can get off for the whole day, like a guest. You can see as much as you want to see. Sometimes, in places such as Hawaii, we’d be there overnight, and if you’re not working then you can get off and stay in a hotel. But if you are working, you obviously have to stay on the ship, which is a shame if you really want to see anything.
“With the Hawaii cruises, we’re at sea for several days, so your days off can fall when you’re at sea. Obviously, you can’t leave the ship. You use those days to sort things out, sunbathe and relax.”
The ship’s voyage started in Alaska, taking in cruises there before working its way past Canada and the west coast of America. Then, there were several trips to Hawaii and back before travelling around Central America and journeys back and forth through the Panama Canal to Miami, Florida.
“Alaska is the most beautiful place ever,” says Jo. “All of it was just so, so beautiful, the most beautiful place I have ever seen.
“We saw the Hubbard Glacier and got so close we could touch it. After that, we went to British Columbia, Vancouver and Seattle. San Francisco, Santa Catalina Island, San Diego and Hawaii. In Central America, we went to Mexico, Guatemala, Costa Rica and did the Panama Canal.
“San Francisco was brilliant. We had an overnight stay there and a few of us ended up randomly flagging a limo down and we hired it for three hours.
“Lahaina, in Maui, is just beautiful, and Cartagena in Colombia is absolutely gorgeous. Cabo San Lucas, in Mexico, is really vibrant and lively, with lots going on. We can hire jet skis there and have a look round.”
The list is endless, enough to almost put Michael Palin to shame.
“It’s been an amazing experience,” she says. “I’ve met people from so many different cultures. There are lots of Latin American people on the ship, so I’ve learnt a lot of Latin American Spanish. There are people from Serbia and Croatia, France, Spain, a few from Canada. It’s really opened my eyes to different things.
“And, of course, it’s great that I don’t have to do my washing, cooking or pay rent – I’m able to save pretty much everything I earn.”
It’s not all play, though. The work can be tough. “I do actually miss intensive care sometimes, the security of being in a hospital and having everything you need around you.
“Here, if we have an emergency on board and we’re in the middle of the ocean, it’s a lot of pressure. We can ventilate, but we can’t perform surgery.
“If someone came in with life-threatening appendicitis, for example, and needed immediate surgery, we couldn’t do it on board.
“We had to disembark a girl who had appendicitis the other day. We were supposed to be going to Puerto Vallarta, in Mexico, but had to stop at Acapulco to get her off. If that had happened in the middle of a journey to Hawaii, when you’re at sea for several days, that would have been quite difficult.
“The air ambulance can only travel 30 minutes from the shore. So, if we’re in the middle of the ocean and something happens, we just have to keep the patient as stable as possible until we get to land.
“They really try not to use the air ambulance because that puts lives at risk. It can’t land on the ship, so they have to throw down a basket. You can really only airlift quite stable patients. It’s not happened since I’ve been here.
“There are lots of challenges. We had a cardiac arrest the other morning and that was strange, not being in a hospital environment. We see all sorts – dislocated hips, pneumonia.
“A little girl was bitten by a monkey off the ship the other day. She disembarked and got rabies treatment. Thankfully, we haven’t had an outbreak of gastroenteritis or norovirus or anything like that.”
It’s not bad, being paid to see the world. Jo is now enjoying it so much she has decided to sign up for another six-month contract, although she’ll return home to Leicester to catch up with friends and family for a few months in between.
“I miss home, of course, my friends and all my family. The thing is with ship life, you start making friends but then people leave, but you get used to it.
“It takes some getting used to, but now I’m settled. Everyone’s so friendly. It’s not like in England, where no-one talks to anyone. You chat to everyone and everyone’s really welcoming. And everyone’s interesting because we’re all from different backgrounds.
“Things I miss? Well, fish and chips, definitely. And, surprisingly, I’ve found I do miss the cold and snow. I’m actually a bit jealous I wasn’t at home for the snow. It was weird, having Christmas in the warm. It didn’t feel like Christmas at all.
“And, oh God, yeah, I miss Cadbury’s chocolate. And Galaxy. Most chocolate, to be honest. I love chocolate. That’s what I’ll be eating as soon as I get home.”