Matie Voices

Dr Brenda Barnetson

Alumna of the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences


“I came to understand that in life, when you teach, you learn.”

“Working at sea on a cruise ship, every night is a Friday night and every morning is a Monday morning – or so they say.” Even though she is now based ashore, Brenda Barnetson, who is Director of Clinical Services for several North American brands of Carnival Corporation – the world’s largest travel leisure company, clearly has fond memories of being a ship’s doctor.

“Doctors and nurses are ranked as officers on cruise ships, and enjoy many of the privileges of guests.”

Working full time as a cruise ship physician, Brenda sailed around the world a number of times and describes the experience as life-changing. “Working at sea changes your perspective on everything.”

She says that it is a job opportunity particularly suited to South African doctors, with their impressive early career experience in emergency medicine and critical care, who “have learned to be resourceful with their time and expertise. Most of them are comfortable working in remote locations with limited specialist and referral opportunities”.

Not that the medical facilities and services on board the more than 40 ships overseen by Brenda from her base in Los Angeles are “mere first-aid stations”.

Shipboard medical centres are well-equipped mini-hospitals offering ambulatory and in-patient facilities, including intensive care units, sophisticated imaging and fully stocked pharmacies. Each is staffed by two doctors, three or four nurses and paramedics.

In fact, Princess Cruise, Holland America Line, Seabourn and P&O Cruises Australia have been awarded internationally-recognised healthcare accreditation and ISO certification that meet healthcare standards for legal, professional and safety requirements, patients’ rights and sound organisational practice in health care.

Brenda, who obtained her masters in emergency medicine at Stellenbosch University in 2014, is responsible for recruiting, scheduling, performance, training and oversight of medical care provided by over 400 medical staff who engage in more than 400 000 patient encounters a year.

Although no longer personally tending to patients herself, she says: “I don’t need direct patient contact to make a difference. Teaching doctors new skills helps many patients later on.”

In support of her medical staff, Brenda is on call 24/7 to provide remote operational support. When one of her doctors phones, “it is as if I am in their shoes. I can imagine exactly what they are going through from my own experience”.

“The caller may want little more than reassurance,” she says. But it can entail more. Ships may have to be rerouted or coastguard rescue services may need be ordered, although, as Brenda points out, “the safest place for patients may be on board with the doctors who are trained to provide emergency care”.

Part of Brenda’s job is to inspire doctors to learn new skills. Besides recognising the importance of patient-centered care, and mitigating legal risk in a culturally diverse population of crew and guests, doctors also learn exciting skills ranging from recognising unfamiliar tropical diseases, to first response in an engine space on board, or arranging medical evacuation by boat or helicopter.

“Doctors on ships also get experience in management and leadership that can take years to earn on land,” says Brenda. The opportunity to travel and the payment of wages in foreign currency are further incentives for doctors considering careers at sea.

Meanwhile, Brenda herself is enjoying life shoreside in southern California. Married to a fellow South African – her husband Piet organises motorcycle tours for the globally adventurous – the couple and their dog, Rambo, relish their adopted home’s healthy, outdoor lifestyle, as well as their proximity to the world’s entertainment capital. “We love going to the shows at the Hollywood Bowl, which is only a 25-minute drive away.”

Reflecting on her time at Maties, Brenda emphasises the “world-class” standards at the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences and the diversity of practice and exposure for the students. In particular, she says, her studies there opened her eyes to “the need to identify and value every opportunity to learn.

“I came to understand that in life, when you teach, you learn.

- By By Mark Paterson -