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Navy Nurse Corps Officer Responds to Medical Emergency on Grounded Ferry

18 April 2023

From Douglas Stutz

When the Bremerton-Seattle ferry Walla Walla ran aground on a late-Saturday afternoon due to loss of power, U.S. Navy Lt. Holly Sapien’s attention became instantly directed elsewhere.

Navy Nurse Corps officer responds to medical emergency on grounded ferry
Staying afloat and rendering support… Lt. Holly Sapien, Navy Nurse Corps officer assigned to Naval Hospital Bremerton (second from left), along with husband Musician 1st Class Michael Sapien (far right), Lt. j.g. Randy Le, Naval Hospital Bremerton registered dietitian (left) and Musician 3rd Class John Landis (back) pause for a selfie moment onboard the Bremerton to Seattle ferry Walla Walla after it ran aground on Bainbridge Island, April 15, 2023, due to power loss. During that time, Sapien responded to a medical emergency, taking the lead in stabilizing another passenger dealing with an epileptic seizure until local fire and rescue personnel could get on board and transport the patient to a local medical facility (Courtesy photo).

Although there were no reported injuries due to the vessel ending up on a Bainbridge Island beachfront, April 15, 2023, there was a medical emergency amongst the approximately 600 passengers on board.

Sapien, a Navy Nurse Corps officer assigned to Naval Hospital Bremerton, immediately responded to a call for someone needed with medical background.

“There was a passenger having a grand mal seizure,” said Sapien. “I had to get him out of the seat he was in. I had to get him on his side to protect his airway and prevent aspiration.”

Sapien, an El Paso, Texas native with almost 10-years of Navy experience, had dealt with grand mal seizure conditions before when working at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth, Virginia.

“That was in a medical environment, with trained medical staff ready to help. This was the first time not in a hospital setting to respond to such an event,” noted Sapien, adding that her training automatically kicked in.

Her efforts also reinforced teaching the Navy’s Tactical Combat Casualty Care course and holding Basic Life Support training designed to enhance medical readiness in generally austere, combat environments.

“We all take these classes for our professional development but never really know when we’re going to actually use the skills,” stated Sapien.

Yet respond she did, until turning her patient over to the Bainbridge Fire and Rescue team once they got on board.

“It’s nice to be there when needed and be able to jump in and help out to give peace of mind to another when there’s no hospital nearby,” said Sapien.

The routine ferry trip became anything but nearly 30 minutes into the Puget Sound crossing. Lights started to flicker. The steady thrum of the boat’s engine stilled. The vessel was headed towards a beachfront home. “Brace for impact” was announced over the Walla Walla loudspeaker system.

The ferry reportedly slowly angled into the beach, coming to rest in a soft landing.

“Once grounded, life jackets were passed out if there was a need to abandon ship,” related Sapien. “We waited around for four or five hours before finally deciding to get off on one of the fast ferries called in to assist.”


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