The doctors had reservations about performing surgery in a field hospital, and one patient's mother was shocked at the idea.
But everyone at Fort George G. Meade apparently found that the medical care was as good in the network of green tents and collapsible metal trailers -- similar to the field hospitals deployed now in Saudi Arabia -- as it is in a regular hospital.
The field surgery unit takes up about two acres of the lawn at Fort Meade's Kimbrough Army Community Hospital. Doctors there have used it since April while the hospital has undergone renovation and removal of asbestos insulation. The unit is called a DEPMED, which is Army argot for Deployable Medical System.
"Most of the physicians have had some reservations about working out here, but have been pleasantly surprised by the ease with which everything works," said Maj. Frederic Johnstone, an orthopedic surgeon at Fort Meade who expects to be deployed soon to Saudi Arabia. "After the initial novelty wore off, it's pretty much business as usual," he said yesterday during a tour of the unit.
Kris Carlson, whose husband is stationed at Fort Detrick in Frederick, said she was shocked at the prospect of her 3-year-old son, Anthony, undergoing surgery for a hernia in the DEPMED.
"It was a tent," she said, "and I thought this is not normal, we're not in combat."
But, after reassurances from the staff that only the setting, not the quality of care, was different, she accepted the idea. She had no complaints yesterday as she sat under the tent of the recovery room, where her son was eating Jell-O after a successful operation.
The Fort Meade complex has four operating rooms and four material supply rooms, all connected by lines of tents. The operating rooms and supply rooms are collapsible metal boxes.
"This box, when it's open and ready to go, is just as nice as anything in the civilian sector," said Maj. Flint Gullett, a nurse anesthetist. "I don't find too much difference myself." His anesthesia machine folds into an olive green Army footlocker.
Several DEPMED units of the same design have since sprung up to serve American troops stationed in Saudi Arabia for the Desert Shield operation.
"The important part is they're building blocks," said Col. David Sa'adah, the project officer for the DEPMEDs, on which the Pentagon has spent $4 billion since 1983.
In Saudi Arabia, enough modular tents and collapsible boxes have been joined together to accommodate 500 patient beds, Sa'adah said.
"There is no category of operation that cannot be done in a DEPMED hospital if you have the appropriate staff for it," he said.
He said the military had set up a DEPMED in St. Croix last year after Hurricane Hugo. A similar unit supplemented NATO headquarters in Belgium, when the hospital there underwent renovations.
The unit at Fort Meade, which is to be packed up in October, rests on wooden platforms covered with a carpet of white padding. Hanging from the apex of the tent complex is a white nylon duct studded with Velcro-fastened vents that blow hot or cold air into the tents, depending on the weather. Several people who work inside said it was cool and comfortable inside on the hottest summer days.
So far, the walls of the tents and metal boxes have successfully sealed the interior against infection, though the fine wind-blown sands of Saudi Arabia may eventually pose a stiffer test. The DEPMEDs in Saudi Arabia have had no trouble yet in keeping the sand out, Sa'adah said. But, he added, "it's not the sand-blowing season yet, so they have not gone through the worst of it."