Comfort gets ready to sail

Navy ship to take medical personnel to care for people in earthquake-ravaged Haiti

  • Seaman Doug Ruby of the Philippines uncovers one of four rescue boats stored on the deck of the USNS Comfort on Thursday. The vessel is set to leave from its Canton Pier port on Saturday.
Seaman Doug Ruby of the Philippines uncovers one of four rescue… (Baltimore Sun photo by Jed…)
January 15, 2010|By Joe Burris | joseph.burris@baltsun.com

The USNS Comfort hospital ship will leave Canton Pier on Saturday morning for its biggest mission ever, taking a wide range of medical care to earthquake-ravaged Haiti.

Military Sealift Command spokeswoman Laura Seal said the staff of more than 600 (including 560 medical personnel and 65 civil service mariners) will reach Haiti on Thursday for an open-ended mission.

And the crew expects to encounter horrific conditions on the island.

"When we go to casualty situations on a grand scale, we're going to see things like skull fractures, aneurysms and neurological issues," said Chad Singer, a hospital corpsman from New York. "We'll haveventilators. We'll have people with severe blood loss, so we'll have to do transfusions."

The 894-foot ship provides full hospital services to support disaster relief in the U.S. and worldwide. It has one of the largest trauma facilities in the country and also has four X-rays, one CAT scan unit, an MRI unit, a dental suite, a pharmacy and an optometry and lens laboratory. The ship maintains up to 5,000 units of blood and can serve as many as 1,000 patients.

It marks the second time in less than a year that it will head to Haiti. In July, the ship served as the platform for humanitarian and civic assistance in Haiti and other Caribbean nations. It treated more than 100,000 patients.

Comfort's most recent domestic missions were in late 2005, when it provided medical assistance to victims of hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Supplies are needed
Navy Lt. Cmdr. Thomas Olivero of Frederick said that one of the biggest challenges in readying the ship for the Haiti mission is supplies. "While we're in port, we don't do procedures, we don't take care of patients. So the supplies that sit on board sometimes expire."

Supplies can be replenished at sea or boat-to-boat, he said, and helicopters can ferry patients and staff members on and off the ship.

Olivero added that it helps that the Comfort and its crew have been to the Caribbean nation. "It prepares us in terms of understanding their infrastructure and the way it's been devastated," he said. "We know what their limitations were during our last mission, and it's going to be even worse because of the devastation. Whatever we need, we're going to have to bring ourselves."

Many of the crew - some are local, others come from as far away as the Philippines - were part of the previous Haiti mission.

Anxious to leave
Officers such as Joseph Kranz can't wait to get going.

"This is our backyard. Haiti's our country," said the Rhode Island resident. From previous trips, the deck officer remembered local merchants coming out to the ship in canoes and trading local goods. He's bartered so often, he said, that the Haitians call him "Captain Joe."

Kranz stood on the ship's heliport and spoke about its engine's prowess as if he were describing a souped-up speedboat.

"We can get her going up to 15-16 knots," he said. "Once you get her moving, it takes a few miles to stop her."

Kranz said the ship will likely head down to Cape Henry, about 150 miles away. It will take about 12 hours to clear the pilot station there, he said, and helicopters can land on the ship as it is heading along Cape Henry.

"First, I expect our platform to be a support for orthopedic work - broken bones, there will be a lot of helicopters landing with broken people," said Kranz. "There's no doubt that every bed will be filled here. I don't know if we'll turn ourselves into a morgue or not. We have a morgue, but I think it can hold only 13 people."

Bracing for departure
Upon hearing that the Comfort was heading to Haiti, Heather Pulliam of Fort Meade began bracing herself for the horrors she might see by talking to her husband, a Baltimore police officer trainee.

Then, the mother of two children, ages 2 and 3, prepared them for her time away.

"I say, 'Mommy's going to help sick babies,' and they understand it," said Pulliam, assistant leading petty officer for nursing services. She's in charge of supplies for specialty services, such as dialysis and respiratory and cardiovascular care.

"As a mother, it touches my heart a little bit," she said. "As a mother and being in the medical community of the Navy, you have a little more compassion for the things we're going to be seeing and treating."

She said the fact that the crew has been there before helps them to adapt quickly. "A lot of the people of Haiti are familiar with us. The Haitians, just seeing our ship makes them already feel comfortable."

Even with all the medical facilities and equipment, the Comfort's most important asset might be a staff that's ready to leave at a moment's notice.

"So the last three years that I've been here, every day can your be your last day here at port," said Singer, "so you have to always be prepared."

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