By Jeremy Borden
BALTIMORE – Children, wives and loved ones stood shoulder-to-shoulder waiting anxiously at Baltimore’s Canton Pier as the unmistakable red cross of the hospital ship USNS Comfort slowly made its way into a sun drenched harbor Friday.
It was the last moments of a deployment that began January 16 in the wake of the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that devastated the island country of Haiti and left many looking for ways to help.
When the Comfort arrived off the coast of Port-au-Prince on January 20, it was the beginning of an experience that, for the majority of the crew, was truly unique.
And it happened quickly. After the devastating earthquake, the U.S. military immediately began to see what it could do. Commanders deployed troops on the ground, to keep the peace and render medical assistance, while the Comfort served as the military’s epicenter for those who required extensive aid or surgery. Off-site triage centers were used to determine who could most benefit from treatment aboard the Comfort, and then patients were flown or sent in small boats to the ship to receive lifesaving medical treatment.
“The majority of the people [crew and medical staff on board] had never seen what they saw over those first days,” said Navy Lieutenant Commander Sean Hussey, a pathologist at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda who helped oversee the Comfort’s hospital operations. “It was amazing to see how well the staff just sort of honed in, working on pure adrenaline. We didn’t have a lot of time to take a breath.”
Much of the Comfort’s time in Haiti was “ordered chaos,” as Hussey put it.
The first day, for example, “lasted 40 hours,” Navy Surgeon General Vice Admiral Adam M. Robinson, Jr., reported hearing from those who were there.
“That to me sums up what was happening,” Robinson said. “That means every six to eight minutes, they were receiving a patient who was critically injured at just a very rapid pace. Every person on that ship – from the medical professionals to the corpsmen, the non-medical professionals - everyone knew their job.”
Commanders on board knew, in general, the types of injuries they were going to see once they arrived in Haiti, and they prepared for the broken bones and internal injuries common after earthquakes, Robinson and Ware said. Still, the sheer volume of patients who packed surgical rooms and post-operating tables posed unique challenges – particularly the number of emergency surgeons needed, Ware said.
Even though the Comfort was fully operational for the first time in its history, officers said that they relied on the generous support of Non-Governmental Organizations such as the American Red Cross and Operation Smile to help meet medical needs. A shortage of specialty doctors meant they had to be flown in from the University of California at Los Angles, and the University of Michigan, among others hospitals.
Another need that quickly became apparent – translators for the patients' native Creole – was filled by many who were flown in from Miami.
The mission in Haiti was very different for Ware and others because in combat scenarios, you don’t know what happens to the patients you treat.
“Many of the patients that came aboard [in Haiti] were hanging by a thread,” Ware said. “The doctors and nurses that treated them were able to … follow many of those patients for ten, 12, 14 days. A certain compassion, affection, and love was noted.”
Hussey said he will forever remember those who had been treated.
“Seeing the looks on their faces, even though many of us couldn’t communicate with them, as they were leaving and getting onto boats and helicopters … that’s something I’ll remember,” he said.
Upon his arrival Friday, Ware said he knew that there was still a lot to be done in Haiti, but he was proud of what he and the Comfort’s crew were able to accomplish.
And so were the waiting families.
For Francie Ware, the captain’s wife, March 13, marked a particularly significant moment of pride, when the Comfort stopped in Norfolk, Virginia, for five days to offload equipment and allow much of the Portsmouth, Va.-based crew to disembark.
The fog was heavy that day, she said. Yet hundreds of family members and high-ranking military officers stood expectantly waiting. For an hour, those on shore could only hear the sound of the Comfort’s fog horn.
All of a sudden, she said, the huge white ship emerged and the crowd cheered.
“When they left [for Haiti], I said, ‘They are going to make America so proud,'” Francie Ware said. “They definitely made America proud.”
Jeremy Borden is the staff writer for ON★PATROL.
Total patients treated: 817
Total surgeries performed: 843
Full bed capacity: 1,000