'Invisible people' play a big role on hospital ship Foot fungus and wiper-fluid punch kept doctor busy.

April 16, 1991|By Jay Merwin | Jay Merwin,Evening Sun Staff

Cmdr. Dennis Vidmar's medical teams had drilled to a pitch of readiness, working on the most hideous chemical weapons attack simulations he could concoct. The Persian Gulf war, when it came, was somewhat of a disappointment.

After the cease-fire, Vidmar closed the chemical decontamination unit he had organized and trained aboard the hospital ship USNS Comfort. Vidmar's unit would have cleansed those exposed to chemical attack before sending them to the ship's trauma ward for further treatment.

While giving thanks that the war killed so few Americans, Vidmar said, "The ship at large felt disappointed we didn't get the casualties, be they clean or contaminated, we had trained for."

Vidmar, who lives in Gaithersburg, was one of about 370 Navy medical staff and crew arriving at the Dundalk Marine Terminal yesterday aboard the Comfort after eight months away at war.

City fire boats let their geysers rip in greeting. Families and friends of the Comfort crew thronged the port with flags and signs and yelps of welcome.

The Comfort is an oil supertanker converted to a 1,000-bed hospital ship outfitted with medical expertise and equipment comparable to that of most major American hospitals. On this cruise, the Comfort received 716 inpatients and more than 8,000 outpatients who were hurt outside of combat.

"I was one of the busiest docs in the war," he said Vidmar, 40, who was deployed to the ship last August from Bethesda Naval Hospital, where he is chairman of the dermatology department.

Soldiers who picked up fungus infections and boot dermatitis came to him. He was proud that the Comfort was the first in the war to diagnose a case of leishmaniasis, a tropical disease borne by infected sand flies. And he was one of the physicians who saved the lives of eight Army soldiers who downed a Christmas party punch of windshield wiper fluid and fruit juice.

The poisoned soldiers were treated with 100 percent grain alcohol to slow the liver's conversion of the methanol from the wiper fluid into formaldehyde -- "the chemical that really does the damage," Vidmar said. "These patients may have had the worst hangovers of their lives, but they lived to tell about it."

To prepare for chemical attack victims, Vidmar read and consulted widely. Further reading he requested from Aberdeen Proving Ground arrived 20 minutes before the Comfort pulled out of Norfolk, Va., on the way to the gulf, he said.

Dressed in protective suits, his staff of 40 would have cut away the clothes of the exposed soldiers, cleansed their bodies with a bleach, dried them with paper towels and wiped them with chemical detector paper. If the paper revealed no trace of residual chemical on their bodies, the wounded soldiers would be sent to the ship's main casualty receiving ward for medical treatment.

The contaminated wastes from the operation would have been stored and handed over to the Army for disposal in a place and manner that remains classified, Vidmar said. But, if too much of ++ this material collected on the ship, Vidmar said, some of it would have been dumped over the side to prevent exposure to the crew. The ocean water would have diluted and neutralized the chemicals, he said.

To harden his team to the wounds they might encounter, Vidmar trained them on shipmates slathered in food coloring and shaving cream. Some of these scenes were "just magnificent," he said. "They got our blood pumping."

He is proudest of a simulation of a soldier taking shrapnel to the leg from an artillery shell loaded with poison chemical. This casualty would have "lots of different things going on," he said, heavy bleeding, sweating, vomiting, diarrhea and suffocation from lung secretions.

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