New Zealand Defence Force's Hospital on the Seas

9 May 2018

For the first time, the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) is fully capable of performing operations and trauma care on a Royal New Zealand Navy (RNZN) ship, with a hospital operating theatre, intensive care unit, x-ray and ultra-sound facilities, and blood bank.

An NZDF contingent is in Vanuatu taking part in Exercise Tropic Major, which includes testing multi-role vessel HMNZS Canterbury’s ability to deploy a maritime medical capability, with a team of 21 medical personnel that includes a surgeon, anaesthetist, nurses, medics and a medical scientist.

Officer in Charge Major Bronny Clulow, a registered nurse, has often set up land-based field hospitals, but this is the first time HMNZS Canterbury's operating theatre and laboratory have been fully operational.

"We are good to go," she said. "We have a mixture of reservists and regular forces among our team. We can send bloods out to our lab, right beside theatre, and get blood results. We have a portable x-ray machine, and portable ultra-sound for internal bleeding. We can perform some neurological tasks, such as relieving pressure on the brain. It's life or limb-saving surgery."

Originally from Oamaru, Major Clulow has been in the military for 28 years, starting as an RNZN medic.

"It's the opportunities you get overseas, the education, the friends you make,” she said.

Captain Sophie Nightingale, a general surgeon, is a New Zealand Army reservist from Wairarapa who works as a general surgeon and breast cancer specialist in Melbourne.

"I think this is pretty incredible – it's a great achievement to have this on board,” she said.

“I hope we don't have any real-time incidences, but if we do I know we have all the equipment here. We can look after patients, before and after surgery."

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.

Captain Nightingale was recruited in the Territorial Forces in her first year of medical school. She was attracted to the physical challenges of being a reservist.

She has served in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, as a medical officer for four months, working at the local hospital.

"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 better trained at interaction with locals, and being aware of the welfare of women and children."

Anaesthetist Dr Nic Smith, from Wellington, a Captain in the Army Reserves, said it was amazing to see the team work in a theatre on a navy ship.

"We did a casualty simulation, and it worked really well. We bring people through and make it work on a ship," she said.

Captain Smith, who works at Wellington Regional Hospital, said she wasn't sure how she would fit in a military environment. She is expected to contribute 20 days a year to the Army, but there is flexibility with her exams and study.

Originally from the United Kingdom, she said she had been welcomed into New Zealand and wanted to give something back.

"It's building capability to support troops out in the middle of nowhere. This is my first deployment, and it's really amazing to see it all come together."

This page was last reviewed on 7 February 2019.