Like a city at sea, Comfort full of life

Hospital: For those serving on the Baltimore-based ship, there's more to the daily routine than caring for the wounded.

War In Iraq

March 31, 2003|By Jonathan Bor | Jonathan Bor,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MANAMA, Bahrain -- It may be one of the world's largest trauma centers, a ship with a mission both rewarding and grim. It might be the most distinctive Maryland presence in the Persian Gulf, thanks to its home berth in Baltimore and a crew that mostly hails from between the Potomac and the Mason-Dixon Line.

But the USNS Comfort, a hospital ship taking on injured from Iraq, is also something else. It is a small city where people live and sleep, make new friends and long for others, eat junk food and watch their weight, read fiction and philosophy, work hard and sit around, do taxes and plan their divorces -- some prompted by Dear John letters that have already arrived.

It is a tangle of streets that can dead-end or go on forever, where getting lost is common and not asking directions is simply stupid. It is a place of top bosses, middle managers and service workers, of the mainstream and offbeat.

Reminders of life outside medicine are visible everywhere. In the emergency room, where the frenzy of a helicopter landing can give way to hours of downtime, people have stashed DVD players, supermarket tabloids, sketchbooks and novels. Elsewhere, photos of wives and children are displayed on desktops and on the steel walls beside triple-deck bunk beds. One such gallery includes a photo of a smiling woman in a wet T-shirt that might as well be mesh.

The activity level aboard is directly proportional to the amount of blood spilled in battle. The 1,000-bed ship is staffed to treat mass casualties, but so far it is less than 10 percent occupied. Capt. Charles L. Blankenship, the ship's commanding officer, says without apology: "We'd rather be bored."

The Comfort's 10 decks contain everything from sleeping quarters to high-tech operating rooms. Through one window, visitors can see blood banks or a laboratory with microscopes dotting countertops. Scattered through the ship are 40-bed wards and an intensive-care unit. Through double doors, staffers enter a 50-bed emergency room far larger than that of the Maryland Shock Trauma Center.

In the emergency room, nurses and doctors -- many of whom trained at Johns Hopkins or Shock Trauma and work in peacetime at Bethesda Naval Hospital -- have everything they would have at an urban hospital. "We have extremely comparable technology here," said Lt. Karen Ritchie, a nurse who trains other nurses and corpsmen.

The operating rooms contain the standard: banks of monitors, doughnut-shaped lamps, ordered tangles of tubing. Though compact, they are as spacious as any but the newest operating rooms back home. Surgeons say there is really no difference operating here from anywhere else, except one: No land-based hospital rocks back and forth. For a ship's surgeon, pinning bones together and reconnecting lengths of bowel require skills one would need no place else.

The first rule, said Cmdr. Ralph C. Jones, is never look up. If one stands squarely on two feet and looks only at the patient, surgeon and patient will move together and the world will seem still.

In particularly rough seas -- and there have been some lately -- a surgeon can elect to sit in a steel chair that is bolted to the operating table. This takes buckling legs out of the picture, though Jones says the stopgap is seldom necessary.

"I've stood up in storms and done OK," said Jones, the chief of surgery. He did concede that sometimes he likes to use a magnetic pad that is fastened to the operating table and secures the metal instruments like nothing else.

The medical facilities fill only part of the ship. There are exercise rooms with treadmills and weights, an officers lounge with a large-screen television and a ship's store that may as well be a 7-Eleven. It sells potato chips, sodas, microwave popcorn and pickles wrapped in plastic. Such items are cheap, but for $575, crew members can buy a portable DVD player, a luxury item that sells faster than one might think.

There are also countless nooks and crannies where life goes on, such as a place outside one stairwell landing where four men worked out harmonies to a doo-wop tune.

A popular hangout is the smoking deck, a terrace bounded by high railings where people go to relax during breaks. Though open to the breezes, it is hard to get away from tobacco smoke, and on foggy days conversation is interrupted by a deafening foghorn that blasts every two minutes.

"There is no outside world, so this becomes our outside," said a rare nonsmoker. "We talk shop, talk about family, about what we're going to do when we get home." As a sailor nearby railed about a small annoyance in the supply room, the officer conceded that complaining is routine.

"There's an old saying," she said. "A bitching sailor is a happy sailor."

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