Comfort crew comes home to family, friends, doughnuts

March 20, 2010|By Robert Little

The family members arrived with signs and flags and messages of thanks to hand out on the pier. A local businessman showed up with 120 dozen doughnuts; a school in Park Heights brought every one of its students to stand and cheer.

And when crew members of the USNS Comfort finally walked through the gates at Canton Pier on Friday, hoisting the belongings they'd taken during a seven-week tour providing emergency medical care in Haiti, the kids screamed and pressed certificates of thanks into their hands.

"Your work on behalf of the earthquake victims of Haiti exemplified the spirit of America," the certificates read. "And we are all proud of you."

The Navy hospital ship's return home to Baltimore marked the end of the busiest - and, it could be argued, most accomplished - mission of its 25-year existence.

The 894-foot floating hospital was relatively empty by the time it tied up in Canton. Most of the 1,300 crew members who helped treat victims of the Haitian earthquake had departed earlier this week in Norfolk, Va., or before the ship left Port-au-Prince on March 9.

But the senior crew - who missed the snowstorms and the Super Bowl and so much of normal life over the past two months - disembarked with relief and pride and a sense that the Comfort had found a renewed purpose in Haiti, even as it left behind a scene of continuing despair.

"We took care of 1,000 very sick people, and I think you'd have to say the mission was successful," said Cmdr. Tim Donahue, head of surgery on the ship. "But we left behind tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands. Haiti still needs a lot of help."

"I think they performed amazingly," Cmdr. Mark Marino, head of nursing, said of the Comfort's crew. "You still walk away feeling like you could never do enough, though."

The Comfort's crew performed almost 850 surgical procedures in the first few weeks of its mission - nearly twice the number required of the ship during a six-month mission to the Persian Gulf at the start of the Iraq war.

Yet as time passed in Haiti, the patient load changed, crew members said. Broken limbs and other earthquake-related injuries grew scarce. Patients with infections, gunshot wounds and congenital diseases began to arrive.

When Navy officials made the decision earlier this month to remove the Comfort from Port-au-Prince, relief doctors on the island pleaded for it to stay. They said the ravaged countryside was awash with untreated victims and surgery patients who needed complex follow-up procedures unavailable anywhere else in Haiti.

Crew members of the Comfort, however, say that need was not always apparent from their vantage point a mile out in the harbor. The Navy sent teams ashore to three dozen medical clinics and hospitals, and couldn't find enough appropriate patients to justify continuing the ship's mission.

"Anyone who thinks Haiti is back to normal and everything is fine hasn't seen what it's like," Donahue said. "But we were out searching for people, and most of the injuries we were seeing weren't related to the earthquake."

As Donahue and a group of other senior leaders talked with the news media and Navy officials Friday, crew members began trudging down the ship's gangway to touch ground they hadn't seen since their hasty departure Jan. 16.

Once through the gates, they were consumed by a crowd of relatives and schoolchildren who had waited more than two hours for the chance to cheer.

Stacie Waddell stood along the fence with her daughter, Sarah, and two grandchildren, holding a welcome sign for son-in-law Robert Bertrand, a biomedical technician on the ship.

"What I feel is a combination of relief that he's safe, excitement to see him, and pride in what he did," Waddell said.

A few steps away, Lincoln Islam and employees from the downtown Dunkin' Donuts franchise he owns had set up tables to hand out free coffee and pastries - a gesture, he said, to the crew's sacrifice of time and effort.

"It's a way that I can help," Islam said. "I can't go to Haiti, but I can do this."

Perhaps most conspicuous was Pam Sanders, principal of St. Ambrose Catholic School in Park Heights, who had brought her entire student body of 160 children, kindergarten through eighth grade. Students from St. Casimir Catholic School in Canton also filled out the crowd.

"This really is a special event for them, to see the people who were on the front lines helping all those people," Sanders said. "And for me, too. I really can't say enough to express how grateful I am for what they did."

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