Few Patients Seek Comfort

Sent to the gulf after Katrina, hospital ship Comfort was ready for almost anything. What it got was almost nothing.


NEW ORLEANS -- When the crew of the USNS Comfort pulled out of Baltimore harbor a month ago to help the Hurricane Katrina relief effort, the highly trained doctors and nurses aboard the Navy hospital ship never imagined they'd have to hunt for patients.

Yet it has been a month of relative inaction for the 1,000-bed ship, at a cost of about $700,000 a day to taxpayers.

After first docking in Pascagoula, Miss., where specialists trained to deal with severe trauma mostly treated people with cuts, bruises and other minor ills, the ship was sent to New Orleans, where needs were thought to be greater.

It finally tied up at the dilapidated Poland Street Wharf here late Sept. 29. As of noontime yesterday, it had admitted a total of 18 patients, including a police officer with an ingrown toenail. Unless the Comfort gets busy soon, military officials here say, the Pentagon plans to order the ship back to Baltimore Tuesday.

From the start, officials had no clear idea how they might use the Comfort to aid hurricane victims. And that uncertainty persisted throughout the voyage. Comfort's long cruise into hurricane country, part of "Operation Gulf Relief," was dubbed "Operation Indecision" by one shipboard graffiti artist.

Lt. Ricky Thompson, a 41-year-old Navy operating room nurse, said that on a typical working day at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda he might participate in four or five major surgeries on Marines and sailors badly injured in Iraq.

There was, he said, "probably more" need for him back in Maryland than in America's Gulf Coast. "There wasn't a real surgical mission during the hurricane," he said, and he found that "frustrating, definitely."

The Navy calls the 894-foot vessel the fifth-largest trauma hospital in the nation. Built to handle a flood of battlefield casualties, the Comfort is equipped with everything from a helicopter landing pad to a dental clinic and a morgue. Its teams of medical specialists are trained to treat the horrendous wounds inflicted by modern warfare,

When an assistant secretary of the Navy announced that the ship was headed to the Gulf of Mexico on Aug. 31, two days after Katrina battered the coast from Louisiana to Florida, there were no specific plans. The Navy said it ordered the ship's deployment even before the Federal Emergency Management Agency requested it.

Because the Comfort's medical team didn't know what their role might be, they tried to prepare for everything. They even set up a maternity unit because they had heard stories on television about pregnant women being evacuated. (So far, no babies have been born aboard.)

The Comfort steamed out of Baltimore on Friday, Sept. 2, after just 2 1/2 days of preparations instead off the usual five. But the ship is slow, cruising at only 17.5 knots or 20 mph, and it was forced to stop in Florida to take on more supplies and personnel.

By the time it arrived in the gulf Sept. 8, the post-Katrina crisis had largely passed and a dispute had erupted over what to do with it.

Former FEMA Director Michael Brown testified last week that he had ordered the ship sent to New Orleans after officials in Mississippi said their hospitals could cope and they didn't need it. But Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi intervened, an aide told reporters last month, and asked that the ship be sent to his home state to contribute to the recovery.

On Sept. 9, Brown was relieved of his command of the Katrina recovery effort. That same day, the Comfort was ordered to Pascagoula, Miss.

In Pascagoula, the Comfort's medical staff says, they found themselves far from the most severely affected areas and berthed at a dock difficult for most potential patients to reach.

So they put up signs advertising their free services, drove out into the community searching for people to help and even opened a clinic in a shopping mall.

To keep busy, they also volunteered for other duties. One medical specialist said he helped retrieve soggy football uniforms and game films from a damaged stadium.

In all, the Comfort's medical staff treated more than 1,800 patients in Mississippi. But they say they mostly provided primary medical care to people with bumps and bruises, colds and coughs. None of the injuries was storm-related, and they did not perform any trauma surgery.

Among the sickest patients were a 10-year-old boy who needed an emergency appendectomy and a shrimp fisherman who had impaled himself on a fishhook, badly infecting his hand.

Then came word of Hurricane Rita. As that storm threatened Sept. 20, the ship left the Mississippi coast for safer waters in the eastern gulf to wait out the weather.

Once Rita had passed, the Navy sent the Comfort on to New Orleans at the request of officials in Louisiana and at the federal Department of Health and Human Services.

Navy officials said its staff would treat only the kind of serious trauma cases that would have gone to the city's closed Charity Hospital.

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