USNS Comfort sits at its pier in Baltimore on Jan. 15, being readied to move out to provide medical support for earthquake-ravaged Haiti. Photo by Donna Miles
Story by Donna Miles
BALTIMORE, Md. - Early last spring, Navy Capt. James Ware was preparing his crew aboard the hospital ship USNS Comfort for a humanitarian assistance mission in Haiti, the first stop during a four-month swing through the region.
On Jan. 15, Ware is overseeing final preparations to return to Haiti for a more pressing mission: providing life-saving medical care to victims of a devastating earthquake that killed tens of thousands and left untold thousands more injured.
Comfort will leave its home port here early tomorrow and is expected to arrive in Haiti by Jan. 21, delivering a full spectrum of medical and surgical services aboard one of the country's largest trauma facilities.
"This is a moment when we feel we can have a huge impact," along with other military medical providers already on the ground, as well as those from nongovernmental organizations and the international community, Ware said. "Our hope is to work with those individuals, side by side, to truly help the people of Haiti."
USNS Comfort will deliver immense capability to the mission. The hulking hospital ship -- three football fields long and one wide ? has 250 hospital beds and a 550-person medical team that includes trauma surgeons, orthopedic surgeons, head and neck surgeons, eye surgeons and obstetricians and gynecologists.
The team also will include medical professionals from the Navy, Army, Air Force and U.S. Public Health Service, as well as nongovernmental organizations.
Ware said he expects his staff to initially see about 500 patients a day when it arrives in Haiti, working up to 750 or more, and to conduct 20 to 25 surgical procedures a day.
But his big focus today was on getting the ship manned, equipped and provisioned for the mission ahead. A massive logistical effort was under way to load the food, water and medical supplies the crew -- most from the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., but also from its sister hospitals in Portsmouth, Va., and San Diego, Calif. -- will need.
Two cranes worked simultaneously, hoisting palletized loads of bottled water, packaged meals and other supplies to Comfort's upper decks. Meanwhile, a long line of tractor trailers that began arriving last night idled nearby, waiting to offload their supplies. Engine roars mingled with the ever-present "beep-beep-beep" of forklifts scurrying in almost every direction alongside the vessel.
Navy Petty Officer 1st Lamar McDavis, based at the National Naval Medical Center, kept his checklist handy to keep track of the loading process. "It's going to be a long day here," he said, noting that he expects to load as many as 800 pallets by the day's end, compressing into just one day what typically would take about three.
"We're doing this fast, but it can't be fast enough," McDavis said. "People are suffering, and the quicker we get help to them, the better off they will be."
USNS Comfort initially will carry enough food and water to sustain its crew ? 550 medical specialists and 250 mariners and staff to provide security, communications and other shipboard support ? and the patients who will fill its 250 hospital beds for up to 60 days, Ware said.
In addition, the ship has enough medical supplies aboard to support a 60-day combat casualty care mission, he said.
Ware said he's confident he'll have everything he needs on board to proceed directly to Haiti without having to stop anywhere else en route to pick up additional crew or supplies.
"We have pushed forward on this end to make sure we have the right personnel," he said. "We have looked all the way down to the very lowest seaman on board to determine whether they have the exact skills sets we need ? from an operating technician to a surgeon to a blood-bank specialist.
"And we have identified 99 percent of those individuals," he continued. "So [the] plan is to leave tomorrow, and we will be moving as quickly as possible to get to Port-au-Prince Harbor."
As much as 70 percent of the crew already has experience aboard Comfort, or its sister ship USNS Mercy in San Diego, Ware said. In addition to onboard training sessions conducted every 12 weeks, many participated in Continuing Promise 2009, Comfort's most recent humanitarian assistance mission through Latin America and the Caribbean.
During that mission, USNS Comfort treated almost 100,000 patients, including tens of thousands in Haiti alone.
The visit provided important lessons to the Comfort crew it will apply during its disaster response mission, he said, but also fostered relationships that will help in its upcoming mission.
"They are waiting for us to come," Ware said, citing numerous phone calls and e-mails he has received from people he's already worked with in Haiti. "And I think those [relationships] will really pay off ? not for us, but for the people of Haiti."
Navy Lt. Cmdr. Thomas Olivero, department head for Comfort's operating room, is preparing for a mission he expects to be heavy in head injuries, crushing injuries, amputations and other trauma cases. His crew will exercise various trauma scenarios once it's all onboard and under way, to be sure it's ready to hit the ground running when it arrives.
Olivero remembers the gratification of Continuing Promise 2009, when "a busy day for us was a good day, because we were helping many people."
He expects to be even busier during this mission, too, but acknowledged the circumstances will be a lot tougher to deal with. "It is going to be good to help people, but the reason you are busy is not what you want it to be," he said.
Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Lesley Prasad, one of just 50 permanently assigned crewmembers aboard Comfort, said it feels great seeing the hospital ship provide such a desperately needed service to relieve suffering in Haiti. It's kept him and his fellow crewmembers buzzing nonstop for the past four days "on full steam" to prepare so they're ready to hit the ground running.
"I feel really good about this," he said, pausing as he ordered last-minute medical supplies for the mission. "We are the best qualified crew medically, [and we're] ready to help these people in Haiti," he said. "To be able to have such a vital role in the effort, it's awesome."