Green Tent Hospital Has Patients Feeling In The Pink

September 25, 1990|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,Staff writer

Three-year-old Anthony Carlson didn't really care that he was recovering from surgery in a tent. He just sat up in his bed, played with his Jell-O and smiled for the television cameras that had gathered around to make him the media star of the day.

Anthony was one of nearly 1,000 patients who have been operated on since April at Fort Meade's deployable medical station, sort of a high-tech MASH unit. Anthony's father, Mark, an Army specialist stationed at Fort Detrick in Frederick, had seen one before, but just the same said he was surprised with the facility.

"I can't believe they made it so comfortable in here," he said.

The maze of green tents, 8,000 square feet in all, plus four operating rooms that can fold up to fit on the back of a small truck, sit in a lot off Kimbrough Army Community Hospital. It is being used while the hospital's operating rooms are upgraded.

Inside the temperature-controlled tents is everything a surgeon needs -- operating rooms, sterilization tanks and recovery rooms.

The tent fortress is insulated and temperature controlled. Officials said it can withstand temperatures below 0 and well above 100. The ground is well-padded and hallways -- or tentways -- are well-lighted.

While the medical facility fulfills a practical purpose in keeping the hospital functional during construction, it also offers a glimpse of what similar hospital units are like in Saudi Arabia.

Despite some similarities, the medical facility is not a MASH unit. It is designed to operate well behind the front lines, although it can be packed up and moved within 48 hours. MASH units are smaller -- one or two operating rooms -- and can follow troops.

Two such medical facilities, called Depmeds, are operating in Saudi Arabia. One is run by the Air Force, the other by the Navy. The Army is in the process of deploying its own.

From the outside, the facility looks like a series of tents with four boxes -- the operating rooms -- hooked to the outside.

"Once you get into the operating room, there will not be any sense of being in something different," said Col. David Sa'adah, a clinical doctor with the Surgeon General's Office.

Doctors said the facility is as clean and sterile as any hospital operating room and can handle any type of emergency. "If it is properly staffed, I am not aware of any kind of surgery that cannot be performed here," Sa'adah said.

Just the same, patients are allowed to request help elsewhere if they feel uncomfortable. "They can refuse treatment if they feel they are getting into something that is just too weird for them," he said.

But so far, officials said, no one has chosen another facility. In fact, the center got a real test in May when all the operating rooms were full and a patient needed emergency surgery. That meant doctors had to operate on two people at the same time in the same module, the way it would be done in a combat situation.

The medical facility has not been tested in combat. Its first deployment was in the Virgin Islands after Hurricane Hugo. A smaller version of the facility was used in the Grenada invasion.

"They were good," said Maj. Flint Gullett, chief of the Anesthesia Nursing Service, who served in Grenada. "But these are luxuries. It is the best thing the Army has done."

In Panama, doctors were able to set up shop in airplane hangars, Army officials said.

There are some differences between the facility at Fort Meade -- which will shut down in mid-October, when the hospital's own operating room reopens -- and what is in the Middle East or elsewhere. In the field, generators must supply power, and the medical facility would be larger to accommodate wards, pharmacies, labs and living quarters for the staff.

The armed services plan to have 150 such medical centers available for deployment by 1992, at a cost of between $6 billion and $8 billion. That includes buying all parts and transporting the facilities to the many bases around the world.

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