Question: Will I be able to renew my credentials if I have had a heart attack or have sleep apnea or even both?
Answer courtesy of Margaret Strozyk-Hayes, a maritime licensing consultant based in Seattle:
Mariners should not have the fear that their condition or medication will automatically eliminate their chances of renewal. I won’t say it is not going to pose a challenge, but it certainly is not impossible. I spoke with the National Maritime Center (NMC) medical team at some length about this question. During our conversation I asked several medical questions on the behalf of mariners who struggle to renew, or have a sinking feeling that they will not be able to. They provided me with some good insight and advice for mariners with medical conditions.
Mariners need to focus on making sure their illness or condition is under control. They should have a good plan, through their doctor, to ensure that they do not pose a safety risk at sea. This might mean a few more visits to the doctor and a lifestyle change to ensure the condition is being addressed and continuously managed.
Once a mariner and his or her doctor feel the condition is stable under their chosen plan, then he or she should apply for their credentials. The NMC doctors will review your medical application. If they have further questions, they will send out a letter asking for specific details from your doctor. This may include all the notes from your visits, any recorded episodes, statements from specialists, etc. Once the letter is sent, you will have 90 days from the date the letter was written to send in the requested information. If you require more time to comply, you can request additional time.
If the NMC denies your medical application, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the end for you. Every mariner has the right to appeal a denial. Mariners can appeal the decision, asking for time to see their doctor and develop a new treatment plan or to change their medication with their doctor and/or specialist. Mariners have 30 days to appeal the denial. They can then ask for the needed time to administer the new plan and stabilize their condition.
A maritime consultant can play a big role in the mariner’s medical evaluation process. Examples include: explaining the letters from the NMC, contacting the NMC medical team, turning in forms, etc. This makes the process much less of a headache for the mariner.
As we all know too well, medical conditions are huge stress factors for merchant mariners facing renewals and upgrades. I have met individuals who let their licenses lapse due to fear and rumors that they would be denied. Do expect delays and apply early, as your medical evaluation may need many weeks to months to be completed. It takes time to get appointments with your doctors to work on treatment plans, change medications, set up sleep studies for conditions like sleep apnea, or stress tests for heart conditions.
If you have a medical condition or multiple conditions, don’t let the fear keep you from applying. If it seems too overwhelming, hire a consultant to be a buffer and handle the legwork for you. Apply as early as you can. Expect to receive a letter requesting additional information. Understand it may take some time. Know that you have the right to appeal in the case of a denial. If you do appeal, understand that you must be willing to address the issues and maybe even implement a lifestyle change. Mostly, the NMC just needs paperwork from you doctor to show that your condition is stable, well controlled, and that you’re in good health, fit for duty and your condition poses no safety concern.
Imagine a captain or mate on the night watch alone with an uncontrolled condition. Say he or she has an episode and passes out. With one man down and no one around, a lot can go wrong during a four-hour watch with the helm tending to itself. Shipwrecks, death and massive catastrophes can and do occur. Each mariner owes it to his or her family, and to their fellow shipmates, to make sure they are of sound health so everyone can return home safely without incident.
Margart Strozyk-Hayes is a consultant with Mariner Consulting Services in Seattle. Visit www.mmlcs.com.