Hospital ship awaits the wounds of war For Comfort's crew, an uneasy quiet

November 11, 1990|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,Sun Staff Correspondent

ABOARD THE USNS COMFORT, in the Persian Gulf -- Dr. Mike Dinneen, psychiatrist, does calisthenics on the flight deck with his surgeon roommates. They talk about the stress of having little to do on a hospital ship and the fear that they suddenly could have too much.

Capt. Juel Loughney, director of nursing, wrestles with unsettling memories flooding back from hospital duty in Vietnam, thoughts troubling enough for her to have felt ill during a shipboard drill, when the makeup artists made pretended casualties seem all too real.

Steven Rhodes, in charge of producing purified oxygen, counts the days remaining before his Navy service ends. He was gambling that the Comfort, one of the Navy's two hospital ships, would never leave its home port of Baltimore and interfere with his marriage.

Mr. Rhodes lost his bet. After picking up its medical staff, much of it from the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, the Comfort has been at sea for three months. It probably will continue sailing in and around the Persian Gulf as long as hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops remain in the region, and as long as the risk remains high that fighting could break out with Iraq.

"I never, ever thought we would move this big ship," said Captain Loughney, who in normal times is director of nursing at the Naval Medical Center. "We thought if we ever did get called, maybe it would be for some mercy mission -- for an earthquake or like that."

The Comfort, with 1,000 beds, is the ninth-largest U.S. hospital, no

matter that it floats. It may be the largest shock-trauma unit in the world, and its organization reflects the assumption that most patients ferried here by helicopter or ship will need more than bandages or comforting words.

Doctors matter-of-factly point out that each of the 12 operating rooms is arranged to allow two full surgical teams to work on a patient at the same time, on the assumption that many patients will arrive with severe injuries.

Seven boxes of body bags are stacked inside the refrigerated morgue. "We have 22 positions," a lieutenant said of the metal shelves, "but we can put in a hundred people if we had to. We'll tag them, bag them and wait for graves registration to tell us what to do."

Probably no one in this region -- not even physicians aboard a hospital ship that can come and go -- is entirely free of war-related anxieties.

Members of the medical staff worry about having little to do except wait. They worry about being on a vessel that, having no guns, can't defend itself. They worry about how they will react if and when large numbers of casualties are brought on board.

"We're trying to prepare psychologically for mass casualties," said Capt. Roger Pentzien, a Navy physician who is commander of the medical staff. He takes seriously the Pentagon's latest prediction that fighting to undo Iraq's occupation of Kuwait could produce up to 30,000 U.S. casualties.

If fighting began and all went according to plan, injured persons who were brought to the Comfort and could not return to action would stay no more than five to seven days, long enough for their condition to be stabilized, before being transferred to a hospital on land.

The uncertainties about what may come, coupled with the physical restrictions of life aboard ship, have taxed almost everyone's peace of mind. "I know the Comfort appears overwhelmingly large when you first get on board," Captain Pentzien said. "But the ship gets very small."

It is the confining home and workplace for people used to being in control and giving orders.

"It's stressful because you don't know what you're going to do tomorrow, and you're just sitting around here today," said Dr. Charles Blankenship, a surgeon. "Surgeons sitting around are like caged animals."

Members of the medical staff probably can be excused their shock at being here, and even more so on this particular ship. About 90 percent of the crew has never been at sea. Many have never been on a boat.

The Comfort itself was almost stillborn. It was built in the 1970s as an oil tanker -- the Rose City -- and was rebuilt as the second of a new class of Navy hospital ship. But by the time it was ready, in 1987, the Navy had doubts about whether the ship was necessary or affordable, and the vessel seemed destined to be mothballed before it was put to use.

Members of the permanent 40-member crew, based in Baltimore, confidently assumed they would never travel except for an occasional practice run to Norfolk, Va. "I'd thought for sure I'd be sitting at the pier in Dundalk right now," a member of the crew said. "I was assured we wouldn't go anywhere."

For the commanders, the first task at sea was to bolster the psychological health of the medical staff.

At first, people worried about being on a ship that was not built with guns. Its only defenses are six red crosses, each 27 feet wide, painted on the sides.

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