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Profile: all at sea

Cruise ship nurse Marion McKean has been on a long voyage to get to where she is now - content, happy and fulfilled. She has travelled all over the world only to come right back to where she started.

Nursing has been an extremely important part of Marion's life. It has given her much-needed confidence, a busy social life and allowed her to live out her ultimate dream.

Right from the start of our conversation, it was clear Marion had a story to tell. This warm, funny and constantly self-deprecating Glaswegian had no qualms about opening up to me about the ups and downs of her professional life.

While most 13-year-olds dream of pop stardom and all things glitter, Marion had entirely different aspirations and had already made up her mind that she would become a missionary in Africa.

“I was deeply religious as a child and constantly fought against my family who didn't understand my faith,” Marion recalls.

It was this strong Catholic faith that led a teenage Marion to become a nun, where she stayed in numerous convents over seven years, while still clutching onto her missionary dreams.

But the Church wasn't at all that Marion expected.

“I felt stripped of my personality during my time as a nun,” she told me.

“Everything was so structured, restrictive and inflexible. I had to get out.”

While Marion says has still kept her faith, her experience as a nun put paid to her African missionary dreams.

Now in her mid-twenties, Marion turned to nursing and credits the time she spent working as a healthcare assistant as the time she got her confidence back.
“I had fantastic nurses around me who worked hard to rebuild my confidence and give me back my voice during my HCA years,” she says.

So renewed was she after her HCA stint, that Marion embarked on her nurse training in 1992 where she attended the Lothian College of Nursing.

Intensive care beckoned soon after at the Victoria Infirmary but Nursing has been an extremely important part of Marion's life. It has given her much-needed confidence, a busy social life and allowed her to live out her ultimate dream.

By this time Marion already had her eye on warmer climates. The women in Marion's family have all had a love affair with America, with her mother, aunt and sisters all moving out there at one time or another, and Marion was no different. So in 1997, she packed her bags and left the Scottish Highlands for the sandy beaches of Miami to complete her final placement.

Her time in America was shortlived as Marion failed to gain the nursing qualifications required to work in the States and she sadly returned home.
But just as she thought her American dream was all but over, a 128,000-tonne ship sailed into her life.

American cruise ship operator Carnival accepted Marion on board in 1998, requesting no further qualifications than her Diploma of Higher Education in Nursing obtained in the UK.

The size of the medical teams depend on the size of the ship - with the largest holding 4,600 guests and 1,200 crew being served by five nurses and two doctors, and the smallest holding 2,600 guests and 900-1000 crew being served by three nurses and one doctor.

The length of the mostly family-orientated Carnival cruises range from 3 days to 15 days.

All medical staff on board the ships are issued four-month contracts, in which they will work every first, third and fifth day. Staff will typically have six to eight weeks off in between contracts.

The advantage of coming from a well-travelled family, and with the experience of convent life still ringing in her ears, ensured Marion adapted to the cruise ship life quickly.

“It was a very intense atmosphere at the beginning as every- thing seems so huge when you see it for the first time,” she says.

“It was a daunting experience but a great one at the same time.”

Nevertheless, it was the basic level skills and understanding such as learning the American drug names for minor illnesses such as headaches and colds that challenged Marion in her first moments as a cruise ship nurse.

The small nature of the teams and absence of clerical staff means cruise ship nurses are often forced to absorb time-consum- ing administration duties. It is a part of the job that one must accept, says Marion, and something that is made much easier by teams working together.

If you are contemplating a life at sea, Marion warns children will have to wait.

“It is a really great job if you are single and do not have children,” she says.
“I think it would be too difficult to do if you had a family.”

Although training is available on board the ships, Marion says nurses must also feel “comfortable” in their own abilities as they will be expected to undertake a lot of duties they wouldn't otherwise be asked to do on land, such as x-rays, lab work and using a ventilator.

While a typical person would be forgiven for imagining a life away from your family and friends on board a cruise ship might be an isolating place to be, Marion says her experience has shown her the opposite is true.

“You are as isolated as you make yourself,” she says.

“Being surrounded by people 24 hours a day meant I was never lonely.”

Marion has, however, struggled with the temporary nature of working on cruise ships and five years ago she sought a more settled life in Australia.

“I got to a stage where I was tired of living out of a suitcase and I wanted to have my own belongings,” she says.

Yet, while she enjoyed gaining A&E experience in Australian hospitals, loneliness drove her back to a life at sea. Fast-forward to 2012 and it appears Marion is a firm believer in the old adage that it's a woman's prerogative to change her mind as she is leaving the cruise ship life once again.

After accepting a job as a Guest Medical Coordinator with Carnival, Marion will now be responsible for looking after guests that have been forced to disembark the ships due to medical reasons, monitor their care at nearby hospitals and liaise with relatives.

Marion's new role will be on land in Carnival's office in Miami - the place she fell in love with 13 years ago.

“Miami was my goal in 1998. It may have taken me a while but here I am!” she giggles.

It seems Marion's American dream is only beginning after all.