Hospital ship Comfort attends mainly to wounded Iraqis

Most coalition cases are routine sickness, injuries

War In Iraq

April 12, 2003|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Three weeks into the war with Iraq, the Maryland-based USNS Comfort is still treating more Iraqis than U.S. and British soldiers, and most of its coalition patients are in for routine injuries and sickness that occurred away from the battlefield.

Of the 120 coalition fighters brought on board the hospital ship, only 35 or so had been hurt in combat, Capt. Charles Blankenship, commanding officer of the Comfort's medical facility, said at a press briefing yesterday.

More than half the 300 patients admitted in the Arabian Gulf have been Iraqis - all but 30 of them prisoners of war.

Activity on the 1,000-bed converted supertanker - which was designed to stabilize injured coalition fighters for transport to hospitals in Europe and the United States - has been relatively slow. The ship's busiest day so far was Thursday as Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's government continued to collapse, with 50 admissions in a six-hour period, Blankenship said.

The longest procedure performed so far has been an 11-hour surgery to rebuild and stabilize the spine of a U.S. soldier so he could be transported back to theUnited States, said Cmdr. Ralph C. Jones, director of surgical services.

The Iraqis brought on board, civilians and soldiers alike, have been thankful for the care, said Lt. Ramzy Azar, one of four translators on the Comfort.

"Every time I meet a new EPW [enemy prisoner of war], I get the same reaction, which is a gesture of kindness, a gesture of warmth," Azar said.

"I had one situation where an EPW had come on board, and he was convinced that we were going to hurt him on board. As I tried to reassure him that we were here to help him, he just simply broke down and cried."

Cmdr. Tommy Stewart, the ship's head nurse, said the crew members have taken measures to protect themselves from Iraqi prisoners, such as using extra staffers to keep watch at a patient's bedside and removing sharp objects and belts.

But Stewart said his crew give Iraqi fighters the same level of care as that given to U.S. soldiers. "They hold the care of all sick and injured to be a sacred trust," he said.

Once Iraqi prisoners are ambulatory, they are sent to Camp Freddie, a facility for POWs in southern Iraq, Blankenship said.

The commander said the Comfort crew had not identified any officials of Hussein's government among the injured. An Army unit is questioning Iraqis about such ties as they come to the ship, he said.

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