[from the stabenow.com vaults, 2007]
He started out in the Air Force as a nuclear weapons specialist. Not that much of a segue to corpsman on Munro, is it?
HSC Gene “Papa Doc” Mason joined the Coast Guard in 1993. He didn’t start out wanting to be a corpsman, he was more eclectic than that. He looked at gunner’s mate for a while, then bosun’s mate, then he thought about aviation. Then on patrol on Dallas he listened to the chief corpsman talk about his job and thought, “Yeah, this is great, show me more!”
Due to my close encounter of the third kind with the Darwin sorter I have experienced Gene’s bedside manner first hand, and it is first class. Of course he still flinches a little every time I take off my sunglasses, but in fairness I have to say that I’m still an amazing Technicolor dreamboat and pretty much everyone does. His manner is kind, his touch is gentle and he’s a staunch advocate of “first, do no harm,” something I’ve always liked in my medical practitioners.
I think he may also be triplets.
He’s our primary medical care responder. “If I hear “Corpsman, lay to” or just the word “Corpsman” on the pipe, I know somebody’s down.” He also treats everyday things like infections, stitching up cuts, draining absesses, removing infected toenails. He is also constantly policing the crew, making sure we wear ear plugs, goggles, gloves, that we don’t stress out from the heat.
He works under the onshore supervision of Dr. Fernando Andreu in Alameda, to whom he has access by satellite phone and to whom he submits the medical records of all the patients he has treated every three months, with the names removed to protect the patients’ privacy. Dr. Andreu responds with comments and suggestions, and oftentimes merely a scribbled “Excellent.”
Gene can prescribe drugs from a well-stocked pharmacy. The controlled drugs, like morphine, percoset, demoral, are locked in a safe to which only the XO, our medical officer, has the combination. The XO and the Captain are the only persons on board who know anything about our medical issues other than Gene. They are accountable to no less than the DEA, who run an audit of our sick bay every two years and can pull a surprise audit any old time. “Every pill is accounted for,” Gene says, and displays meticulously kept records to prove it. “The XO countersigns all the prescriptions. If the X0 needs anything, the Captain has to countersign.”
He displays a big needle filled with green goo. See photo. It has been known to make grown men shout “I’m not sick! I’m not sick!” He opens his cupboards, which are not bare, and are heavy on the safety first.
[In the middle of our conversation there was a loud crash. In the next instant Gene had his head out the door of Sick Bay. His reaction time is even faster than the Captain’s. “Is everybody all right?” As soon as they saw him a chorus of theatrical groans went up. “Oh, Doc, my leg, my leg!” “Oh, Doc, my head!” He shuts the door, laughing, but says seriously, “Usually that sound is because someone went headfirst down a ladder.”]
He has eight stretcher bearers among the crew. The entire crew goes through annual training in first aid, so essentially he has 147 health aides on board. He also has a few designated hitters, people like FS1 Kelly Napier, who Gene says is trained to the paramedic level already. “She can cook your food and save your life.” “HS is fun,” Kelly says, smiling. “I can start an IV, and I’m going to EMT school this summer.”
Who taught ‘em? Gene. He’s the medical instructor, as well as the emergency medical services observer for the SCAT drills. He checks the ice in the ice machines for bacteria. He’s one of four barbers on board. He sometimes responds to requests for medical help from boats we are boarding. That’s him headed down the ladder to the small boat.
Everytime we go into port, we have to take on water because our evap only makes so much so fast and we’ve only got two 4,000-gallon tanks. Gene checks it at the faucet for chlorine, which should be 2 parts per million. The water should also be bacteria free. Gene checks. See photo of Gene holding up two samples. The one on the right shows an unacceptable level of bacteria present. The one on the left shows a sample of the water we took on at our last port call. Eew. How does he treat it? “Bleach.” Like Clorox? “Oh yeah, regular household bleach, 24 ounces per tank.” He advises me to take bleach along on my next camping trip to treat my drinking water. Okay.
He walks through the galley, the mess deck, the berthing areas to check on sanitation on regularly scheduled as well as random inspections. He has, yes, a checklist of all the check-ups the crew is supposed to have, and frowns a little over one crewmember who will be overdue for his audiogram by the time we get back from patrol. Everyone else is up to date on their physicals and their eye, dental and hearing exams. The exams are required for the crew. What happens if someone misses one? “I send them over to the office to apologize to the doctor and their staff in person. If it happens a second time, paperwork, which goes in their permanent record,” never a good thing. In-ports and port calls are his busiest times. “Port calls are great but they make a lot of work for me,” he says, “infected bug bites, skin rashes, cuts, scrapes, diarrhea.” And sundry other ailments.
“Your greatest fear is somebody dying on you,” he says. “You live with that the rest of your life. What did I do? What did I miss?” He knows two corpsmen who have lost people underway, both heart related problems.
This summer Gene moves on to his next posting, Operational and Tactical Medicine in Washington, DC.
“I pretty much love being here, having my own shop,” he says. “In my new job, it’ll be “Chief, do this!” and “Chief, do that!” But he has been geobaching it in Alameda, which gets old fast, and his wife, Jasmina, and his three children, Courtney, Kevin and Sarah are looking forward to having Dad home again.
“People call me Doc here,” he says. It’s an honorific, a term of respect, of affection, even. He’s going to miss it.
Click here to order a copy.
Author and founder of Storyknife.org.