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USNS Comfort Crew Settles into Busy Reality

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, Jan. 21, 2010 – The USNS Comfort lived up to its name today as the medics and crew of the hospital ship continued to provide medical aid to the residents of this devastated land.

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Navy Dr. (Capt.) Terence McGee examines the eyes of five-year-old Charlene, a Haitian girl evacuated to the USNS Comfort for treatment in the aftermath of the Jan. 12 earthquake, Jan. 21, 2010, Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Photo by Jim Garamone
  

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

In short, it was a very busy day as the medics tended to some of the most challenging cases caused by the magnitude 7 earthquake that struck Jan. 12. By mid-afternoon today, more than 160 Haitian patients were admitted to the floating hospital.

Surgeries were performed almost around the clock. There were nine yesterday -- the first day -- with the last finished at 4:30 this morning. The operating room personnel began work again two hours later.

The intensive care units and wards were beginning to fill to capacity of 1,000 beds. “We have never had that number on the ship, but we can do it,” Navy Dr. (Capt.) Jim Ware, the medical group commander, said.

More medical professionals are arriving, and all are highly motivated. “We had critical care nurses show up today, and after they signed in, they put their scrubs on and went to work,” said Command Master Chief Chip Collins, the Comfort’s top enlisted sailor. “They said, ‘I can put my stuff away later. Where do you need me?’”

And the help is needed. On the main deck, litter bearers bring patients to the casualty receiving area after they are unloaded from helicopters on the flight deck. The elevator door opens and litter bearers come onto the red deck of the receiving area.

“Six,” says Navy Lt. Cmdr. Dan D’Aurora, who “owns” the area. D’Aurora is a nurse and a force of nature. All of the medical personnel in CASREC have their names and ranks printed on surgical tape on their shirts or scrubs. D’Aurora’s shirt has another across the back with the word, “Bulldog.”

The litter bearers bring the litter to Bay 6 where they are met by doctors, nurses and corpsmen who transfer the patient from the litter to the bed. “Get the bed the same height,” says a nurse as corpsmen crank the bed up to transfer the patient. “On three. One, two, three – lift!”

Some patients have breathing tubes and a corpsman presses a bladder to ensure air gets in the patient’s lungs. Other corpsmen and nurses hook the patient to monitors.

The doctor looks at the patient and any records. All check over the patient to ensure some injury hasn’t been overlooked. If X-rays are ordered, a technician brings a portable machine over and the lifting – or turning -- process begins again.

Treatment takes many forms. One doctor performed a spinal tap on a young Haitian boy. Another read an X-ray and sent the patient immediately to the operating room. Still another looked to see that the broken leg was set correctly, then sent the patient directly to one of the wards.

Sailors who serve as translators are an integral part of the team. Most were born in Haiti and emigrated to the United States with their families. They are the conduit that doctors and nurses use to communicate with the Haitian patients.

“They have been nothing short of fantastic,” D’Aurora said. “When we were here last year for [Exercise] Continuing Promise, we did half the patients because we couldn’t communicate. We learned.”

While there are some cries of pain, the patients are pretty stoic. “Again, it helps there’s someone there who speaks their language,” D’Aurora said.

There are a number of bays in CASREC, and several times today, they were all filled. The process works quickly and smoothly and is getting smoother as the medics gain experience.

“This isn’t ‘ER,’” said Navy Dr. (Cmdr.) Tim Donahue, the chief of surgery. “People work quietly and quickly. This is real life. Not TV.”

The medics sometimes move quickly. “Running man!” yells one corpsman as a nurse comes into CASREC at a full sprint with needed equipment.

The patients come in all shapes, sizes and ages. A baby was born on the Comfort today. Both mother and daughter are doing well.

In another bay, Charlene, who is five, hugs a teddy bear she received when she got to the ship. She has a bandage on her left foot, but medics are concerned about her sight. Navy Dr. (Capt.) Terence McGee places eye drops in to dilate her pupils. She is a brave young lady as the doctor looks in her eyes. When he finishes the examination, she begins to cry so he picks her up. He asks if she has an escort – her mom or dad – and is told no.

“Five years old and alone,” he says, and continues to rock her back and forth.

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Related Sites:
Special Report: Haiti Earthquake Relief

Click photo for screen-resolution imageMedical personnel aboard the USNS Comfort hospital ship examine a Haitian patient, background, while another patient waits for an operating room, Jan. 21, 2010, Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The ship is in Haiti to treat patients from the Jan. 12 magnitude 7 earthquake. DoD photo by Jim Garamone  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageTwo medical professionals aboard the USNS Comfort hospital ship treat a Haitian woman in the casualty receiving portion of the ship, Jan. 21, 2010, off the coast of Haiti. DoD photo by Jim Garamone  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageDoctors discuss patient care aboard the USNS Comfort hospital ship, Jan. 21, 2010 in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. DoD photo by Jim Garamone  
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