24 May 2018
A surgeon who sought more physical challenges as an Army Reservist has discovered her profession is a sought-after commodity for the Royal New Zealand Navy’s (RNZN) newest hospital on the seas.
Captain Sophie Nightingale, who grew up on a farm in Gladstone, Wairarapa, is a general surgeon at two hospitals in Melbourne, specialising in breast cancer.
The former St Matthew’s Collegiate School student applied to join the Territorial Forces during her first year in medical school in Auckland, 17 years ago, attracted to the physical challenges of being a Reservist.
She served in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, as a medical officer for four months, working at a local hospital.
Earlier this month she went to Vanuatu on RNZN ship HMNZS Canterbury with a 21-strong medical team, to perform operations and trauma care while at sea if required. It was the first time Canterbury had deployed with an Emergency Operating suite, including an operating theatre, intensive care unit, x-ray and ultra-sound facilities, and a blood bank.
Her deployment was part of Exercise Tropic Major, the largest tropical exercise ever undertaken by the New Zealand Defence Force in the Pacific. It involved more than 500 personnel in a Joint Task Force of Navy, Army and Air Force elements operating from HMNZS Canterbury and HMNZS Wellington off Epi Island in Vanuatu.
The fictitious scenario involved a breakdown of law and order on the island, prompting the Vanuatu Government to request help to re-establish the rule of law and stability for its citizens.
As a surgeon, she was impressed at what the ship offered in the way of trauma care.
"I think this is pretty incredible, to be honest – it's a great achievement to have this on board,” she said. “There’s so much behind the scenes with surgery and it’s all here.
“We have all the equipment to deal with incidents. We can look after patients, not only for surgery but after surgery – that’s just as important."
Particular care had to be taken with equipment, because of the movement of the ship in high seas – operations were out of the question on a rolling ship, she said.
It was her first time on exercise as a surgeon, and the longest she has ever spent on a Navy ship.
"It's taken me 17 years to become a surgeon and the military has changed in that time," she said. "There are a lot more females in the military than in the past. We are also better trained at interacting with locals, and with being aware of the welfare of women and children."