Electric shock - The incident that changed my life forever

Dec 02, 2022

The following story is a guest post from Mladen Jakovljevic - former crew member and author of the book "Modern Age Slavery"

At the end of my fifth month on board, something happened, which proved to be a life-changing experience.

One morning, I woke up ready for a regular day at work. The ship was docked in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Our ship vocabulary was what we called my " day off." That was different from the actual day off; the only difference between the sea day and port days was that I started a little late in San Juan at 15h.

When the ship arrives in port, sometimes we can go outside for a short stroll. But at that time, in the port of beautiful San Juan, I needed to do my laundry in the morning, and during afternoon hours, just before my work, we had some mandatory safety drill. At 15h exactly, I showed up at my work at the bustling bar on deck 10. At that moment, I did not know that what was about to happen would change my life forever.

Apart from our beverage service, long cocktail list, beers, and wines, we made complimentary popcorn for our guests in the bar. As a routine technical part of my job, I plugged the cable into a nearby socket. While ensuring that everything was ready for popcorn, I cautiously turned on the popcorn machine.

Suddenly, I got an electrical shock. From the impact itself, I was grounded. Half awake, I saw my colleagues helping me get to the medical center. When we came downstairs on deck 0 in front of the infirmary, it was already evening and closed. The nurse on duty gave me something for the pain, and they sent me on break shortly after the incident.

I have sustained severe injuries, but I was treated very poorly by the medical team and Management onboard the ship despite that.

Management onboard the ship intentionally tried to cover up that incident and remove their responsibility because they were aware that they put my life in danger by letting me operate an unsafe popcorn machine. The old, overused, cracked cable was lying on the popcorn machine's metal cabinet, and when I tried to open that cabinet, I was struck by electricity. For 4 seconds, I could not remove my hand from the popcorn machine from the electricity impact itself. Shortly after the incident occurred, my supervisor told me he would "take care of all the paperwork about the incident," all-hazard incident reports, and everything else.

At that moment, I felt chest pain and pain in my right hand. On that very same evening, after taking a short break, I was told to go back to work and " be careful this time" while also being given some pain medication for my right hand.

On that same evening, we were told by our supervisor and electrician to continuously operate that popcorn machine and put some paper bags under the broken cable while still making popcorn to avoid further electricity shock. The popcorn machine's damaged, and cracked wire was replaced only the next day.

For the next two weeks, despite everything, I kept working while drinking many pain relievers every day. About two weeks after the incident, I went to the medical center once again because I still had pain in my hand, and for the first time in my life, I developed hypertension. Every day I had constant chest pain and dizziness. My blood pressure was extremely high at that time. I was told by the ship physician that I had developed the medical condition of hypertension. Despite drinking my medication, my blood pressure was still high, and the doctor kept me off for another day of duty. I have also notified the doctor that I still have pain in my right hand and chest, but he prescribed me a stronger painkiller.

A couple of days later, I followed up with the ship's medical center doctor. My condition improved after taking many medications, and I was sent back to work. The next day, from my colleagues, I discovered that there was no single email, report, or note about that particular incident that happened to me, even though my managers were very well aware of what happened. They were probably trying to do a cover-up and remove their responsibility for this entire event.

For that reason,  I went to the HR manager and brought a copy of the work order placed for the cracked popcorn machine wire to be replaced, and I asked the HR manager why there was no single email or report about the incident. Repairing the popcorn machine was much more important than taking care of its employees' health.

The HR manager ordered a formal investigation, and the bar manager and chief security were instructed to finally make a new crew injury report, which was amazingly missing. The security officer made a video of the popcorn machine, and they finally completed an investigation with all signatures and details about the incident being written down. A copy of that crew injury report incident was given only days later because I was very persistent and insisted.

On the same afternoon, I went to the medical center for a follow-up, and the doctor told me that the pain in my hand would certainly go away in a few weeks; he said that it was only a muscle contraction and nothing to worry about. The medical staff on board insisted that everything was terrific, and they sent me back to work once again. They also gave me the BP checklist and told me to return to the medical center to check on my BP every time.

The next day, I came back to check my BP and the result was 200/120, but the nurse wrote in my checklist 151/82. When I asked him why he wrote different numbers, he said, " You are working now; that's why you are here on the ship; it's better like this for all of us."

So I was rushed back to work.

About three weeks after the incident, my condition got worst. I felt very dizzy and had robust chest pain. I felt terrible migraine and vibration in the left side of my neck. I called my manager, and they sent me urgently to the medical center. The infirmary was closed at that time, but they took me inside as an emergency case. My blood pressure was 200/120 at one point, my heartbeat was 120, and my level of Kalium was critically low. The doctor decided to give me a 2-hour potassium infusion, and they checked my Bp every 5 minutes. I was given medication for lowering my BP and also Loranzempan. That night, the doctor told me they might leave me in the hospital shoreside upon arrival in the port of Amber Cove because I had hypokalemia. As he said, I could easily have kidney failure, stroke, heart attack, or permanent blindness that night. He was undecided whether to send me to the hospital on the land the following day or not.

Around 01:00, after the infusion was completed, my blood pressure was still high, 170/110, despite being infused with a lot of medication. Undecided about what to do next, medical staff members sent me back to my cabin and told me to come in the morning. When I came to see the doctor the following day, my condition was still bad. I have asked the doctor to make a shoreside appointment because I wanted to see the cardiologist, neurologist, and orthopedic specialist.

The ship was docked in the Us port, St.Thomas.

The doctor told me they could send me to see the specialist shoreside only the next week in Cozumel, Mexico; he added that Cozumel's specialist is the " trusted company doctor." 

I needed to clearly understand that part because before that scheduled arrival in Cozumel, Mexico; the ship would be docked in three Us ports: St. Thomas, San Juan, and Port Canaveral. They did not want me to go to the neutral, third-party medical institution in the US because I could present to the valid shoreside specialist all irregularities regarding terrible and inadequate medical treatment onboard the ship.

However, I was still unfit for duty the following days and kept on medical off status.

Being isolated in my small, dark cabin, without sunlight, with considerable management pressure, and without any therapy besides the trial and error medication provided daily by the medical team on board, my condition worsened.

Doctors told me on board that I couldn't stay on the vessel longer than seven days without work. They agreed that my medical condition was complicated. At the same time," by the company procedure," I can't be sent home on the medical sign off the ground.

Instead, I was sent to the HR manager from England. She told me that I have two options- either I can RESIGN IF I WANT  or take an emergency leave and pay for my ticket and all medical expenses at home.

That was simply insane, a level of disrespect, and such a ridiculous statement from someone whose job is to be a Human Resource manager. At that moment, I was still unfit for duty, without the option to see the shoreside specialist. Still, at the same time, I  could not stay on board for more than seven days without working, and that's why HR offered me to RESIGN, saying that my condition is not bad enough to go home on Medical sign-off status.

Well, that's what they gave me after ten years of hard work after being an employee of the month several times in my career just because I have developed severe medical conditions while doing my job.

I have asked the HR manager if I should wait for a heart attack, stroke, or kidney failure to be sent home on Medical sign-off status. At that moment, I felt like a thrown, overused pair of socks, ready to be replaced by the Company's cruelty regime. That afternoon, at the end of the very stressful conversation with the Hr director,  I was forced to go home on " Emergency leave" and pay for all my flight tickets and medical expenses.

For sure, that was against Seaman's Working Rights. The first employee in the cruise ship industry was probably sent home on " Emergency leave" after being medical off for seven straight days before getting off the ship.

One day before going home, I went to speak with Staff Capitan. After explaining my situation to him, he was baffled and shocked to hear that Company forced me to take an" Emergency leave." He told me he couldn't change that because he was not the one deciding about those things and couldn't make any adjustments regarding my case.

FORCED SIGN OFF LEADING TO A STRUGGLE

So, frustrated,  injured, sick, stressed, and on the edge of a mental breakdown the following day. After arriving home, I paid for all medical checkups with doctors, cardiologists, professors of psychiatry, neurologists, and orthopedics. The conclusion was given by a team of specialists that I have developed chronic hypertension caused by electrical shock symptoms. They told me I would have maintenance medication for the rest of my life. The psychiatry professor also diagnosed me with a dangerous permanent post-traumatic disorder and said that the recovery process would be long, slow, and uncertain. The orthopedic assessed my hand injury. I have a terrible arm injury that will take a long time to recover from, and future surgery will be required. After an MRI was conducted, the doctor wrote his statement; I was sent for several months on physical therapy, Plasma Trombocite injection in my arm. In the end, I had a complicated arm surgery performed in my hometown. The government-appointed court professor of psychiatry wrote my diagnosis and permanent damage to my mental health.

The mandatory medical records that I had gotten just before joining the ship about eight months before injury showed that my health was excellent before signing on that ship.

After being forced to leave the ship in a very inhuman circumstance, my life drastically changed. The Company distanced me from my case and replaced me in minutes, just like I had never existed before.

Honestly, that was a tough time for me and my family. 

After being a role model for the Company for ten years, I did not deserve to be left out like this. I have served that Company with honor and pride the best I could. In my ten years of working experience, I have consistently shown care and respect towards colleagues and guests. I wanted to believe that I was part of the team, so I dedicated the best years of my life to the cruise company.

Since I got injured onboard the ship, everything has changed. They were more concerned about removing company responsibility from my injury incident instead of sincerely helping me in my complicated recovery process.

Because for them, I was just one more number without identity and meaning. When I tried to speak to the head office to express my concerns, they did not let me finish my sentence while politely introducing myself. Instead, the voice on the telephone repeatedly said: "What is your crew ID number"?

It was no surprise; I don't have a name for them, just a number. The Company felt comfortable and protected despite everything that happened because all its ships were purposely registered in Panama to avoid any Seaman Rights responsibility. They probably believe they can buy anything or anyone with all their money, including myself. And yet, cruise ship companies can get away most of the time because there is a lot of hidden pain from many crew members worldwide daily. I was the only crew member in the history of any cruise line who was forced to take an emergency leave or resign straight after being medically off for seven straight days onboard the ship. Being given the option to quit after that happened was unbelievable, surreal, and beyond any prediction. After all these years of commitment, service, and dedication, this is what I have gotten from them.

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