Hospital ship preps for a novel mission

`Comfort' will travel to Latin America on humanitarian visit

May 31, 2007|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN REPORTER

The hospital ship USNS Comfort leaves its Baltimore home today without the usual war or natural disaster on its itinerary, but preparing nonetheless for one of the busiest and most complicated missions of its 20-year service in the U.S. Navy.

Instead of rushing to a crisis, as it did in New Orleans and the Persian Gulf on recent deployments, the ship is beginning a carefully choreographed 120-day tour of Central and South America that will take it to 12 countries with varying medical and humanitarian needs.

First announced by President Bush during a visit to Latin America in March, the mission is as much about diplomacy as medicine and has caused the ship and the Navy to recast the vessel's fundamental function.

Whereas past deployments called for crewing and equipping the Comfort as a floating emergency room for treating war casualties or disaster victims, the ship's commanders have essentially scrapped the old rulebook and outfitted the vessel as a delivery vehicle for routine medical services on land, from vaccinations and eyeglass distribution to dental checkups and minor surgeries.

Rather than tying up to a pier and waiting for patients to come to it, the Comfort plans to establish medical treatment centers on shore, sometimes floating or flying them inland while the ship stays anchored off the coast. Few of the operations have been rehearsed by the Comfort's 800 crew members, most of whom have never worked together before and won't board the ship until it reaches Norfolk, Va., this weekend.

"I think I'm working harder for this deployment than I did when I was operations officer for an aircraft carrier battle group," said U.S. Navy Capt. Robert E. Kapcio, who is leading the ship's deployment. "Really, it's just a huge, huge undertaking."

Kapcio has been designated as the mission's commodore - another new concept, added to give the ship an additional layer of administrative support to deal with all the foreign governments, local humanitarian organizations and volunteers involved. The ship plans to visit each country for about a week, establishing two medical treatment centers at each port.

Planners from the Navy and the State Department have been meeting at each of the host nations to determine where the ship might stop and what services it can offer, sometimes in cooperation with non-government organizations with permanent operations there.

Many of the details are still coming together as the vessel prepares to leave Norfolk for Belize June 15, and the ship will divert from its planned schedule if a hurricane or other emergency develops in the region before October, when the ship is expected back in its Baltimore home port.

The lack of a singular mission is just one of the mission's unique qualities. Others are apparent on every deck of the ship, where crew members were at work yesterday preparing for patients and challenges they have rarely encountered.

"If we're at war, we're going to treat burns, gunshot wounds and blast injuries. If we're going to Katrina, we're treating things like broken bones," said Lt. Cmdr. Tracey Kunkel, a nurse who runs the ship's surgical spaces. "Now I'm planning for cataract surgeries, cleft lip and palate surgeries, thyroid surgery - things you'd almost never do in an emergency. It's much different."

Kunkel has also outfitted her operating rooms with supplies for treating children, a reality of humanitarian medicine that has created challenges in nearly every department of the ship. In a recovery room, new baby warmers wrapped in plastic are awaiting assembly.

In the main emergency room, one entrance has been converted into an isolation room for patients with tuberculosis or other infectious diseases. Technicians in the repair shop are inspecting and packing portable dental units, with drills, suction machines, cordless X-ray and folding chairs.

On the deck, a new helicopter shelter and two 33-foot launch boats will allow the Comfort to send doctors and medical supplies to patients on land. A stowage area has been converted into a command center for the commodore and his staff.

The mission is modeled after a tour the Comfort's sister ship, the USNS Mercy, took last year in the Pacific, visiting the Philippines, Indonesia, Bangladesh and East Timor. The ship's crew and agencies working with it treated more than 60,000 patients during the trip. The Comfort expects to treat 85,000 patients.

Calling at 12 ports is also unusual for the Comfort and poses challenges and risks for the civilian captain and crew who navigate and operate the ship. At the vessel's first stop in Belize, for instance, the 900-foot ship must navigate a circuitous, coral-lined channel. In Guyana and Suriname, where the coastline is very shallow, the ship will anchor 16 miles off the coast; people and supplies will be ferried ashore. The ship will transit the Panama Canal twice during its tour and has scheduled stops for recreation and resupply.

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