In midst of suffering, a surprise: new life

Baby girl born 7 weeks early may be first onboard delivery for hospital ship

  • Kennedy Siaw of the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda unpacks stuffed animals for some of the children who come aboard the USNS Comfort. Siaw, who lives in Germantown, is showing the stuffed animals off to his co-workers.
Kennedy Siaw of the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda… (Baltimore Sun photo by Kim…)
January 22, 2010|By Robert Little | Baltimore Sun reporter

PORT-AU-PRINCE — In a day filled with still more moans and cries, broken bones and infected wounds from Haitian earthquake victims, the USNS Comfort got a surprise Thursday: a 4-pound, 5-ounce preemie named Esther.

Her arrival - seven weeks early - in the Comfort's operating room marked a milestone of sorts. It's believed to be the first onboard delivery since the ship was converted to a floating hospital 22 years ago.

The expectant mother arrived on the ship Wednesday with a piece of paper on her chest that said simply: "open-book pelvic fracture," someone's way of explaining that the woman's pelvis was separated 6 1/2 centimeters. She also had a complex fracture of her right leg, and her amniotic sac had apparently ruptured when she was injured more than a week ago.

The woman told the ship's crew what has become a common tale: A building fell on her during the earthquake, and she had received virtually no medical care since.

"It's amazing that baby survived," said Lt. Cmdr. Susan C. Farrar, an OB/GYN physician from Portsmouth, Va., who delivered the child by Caesarean section.

"She's been in a bed somewhere, with those injuries, since last Tuesday."

The delivery of Esther - the name her mother left with the nurses before surgery - was scarcely more eventful than any of the other emergency-room procedures and complex surgeries on board Thursday, if only because such things have quickly become commonplace on the Comfort. The decks shuddered throughout the day from the whirl of helicopter rotors delivering ever more patients from Port-au-Prince.

And as is also becoming typical, the crew was forced to scramble and improvise to provide medical care that wasn't contemplated when the hospital was designed as a combat casualty center.

Doctors and nurses who set up the ship's pediatrics wards said the ship rushed out of Baltimore last Friday, and crew members had given just passing thought to delivering and treating newborns. The ship had two incubators - now both full - and three warming bins. In its supply cabinets was just one aspirator used to suction a baby's fecal matter during delivery, a device that is supposed to be disposable but which the crew plans to clean and sterilize if it is used.

Thursday morning, a new crew member arrived on board with supplies he'd been asked to bring, like pacifiers and needle kits for putting intravenous lines in a baby's umbilical cord.

"We kind of knew that we would get babies. We weren't expecting preemies," said Ensign Shannon Walker, a nurse in the ship's pediatrics ward who works as a neonatal intensive care nurse at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda.

In fact, Esther was not the only premature baby onboard yesterday.

Crew members also were caring for another baby girl - they call her Angel because they don't like her official name, Jane Doe - who was born on land Wednesday, also several weeks early. She was flown to the hospital ship in the arms of a flight crewman and arrived in the receiving ward blue and barely responsive, but perked up quickly after getting oxygen and a warm bed. It was unclear to people on the ship precisely who or where the child's mother is.

"It's crazy. We got on the ship so fast we didn't even know what we had," said Lt. Cmdr. Erika Beard-Irvine, a pediatrician. "But we're getting babies, and they're all fine.

"It's Day 2, and we have two of them. And there's a pregnant mother here, 37 weeks, so we're expecting more."

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