BALTIMORE — For those stranded on the upper floors of New Orleans’ partially submerged hospitals, it might seem ironic that relief may come from another hospital surrounded by water.
It is also odd that the medical staff of the USNS Comfort, a vessel primed for healing wounds sustained in foreign battles, will treat domestic ills wrought by weather.
The U.S. Navy’s Baltimore-based floating hospital is beginning a seven-day voyage to the Gulf Coast to aid a region battered by Hurricane Katrina, which left much of New Orleans awash and thousands of coastal residents struggling to survive.
The ship and its crew, who spoke to reporters Friday, are supposed to be ready at a moment’s notice, and the Comfort’s personnel have spent nearly three days supplying and preparing the ship for a departure expected later this night.
So far, the ship’s senior officers revealed few details about the precise scope of their medical mission, which they said could change several times between now and a scheduled supply stop in Mayport, Fla., on Monday.
“We have to make sure that we’re ready for everything,” said Senior Medical Officer Russell Gilbert, who will run the on-board hospital.
“I have to make sure I’m not caught off-guard,” he added. “I have to be ready to go with whatever hits us.”
One of two hospital ships employed by the Navy, the Comfort was recently called into service after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and during the initial stages of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003.
The 894-foot-long and 10-story-high ship is run by the Military Sealift Command and will initially hold 250 patient beds, a number likely to change according to the latest assessment of the region’s needs during the supply stop. The first leg of the trip will be staffed by 270 military personnel, including a medical staff derived mostly from the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda. That number may also change.
The Comfort is a floating hospital in the fullest sense — including 12 operating rooms, a transitional recovery ward, a frozen-blood bank and high-tech medical equipment that some of the deluged hospitals did not have even before the hurricane struck.
It even sports specially designed, mechanized, orthopedic beds, an idea spawned from the ship’s recent Iraq tour.
The current mission marks a rare peacetime deployment and an even rarer non-trauma-oriented strategy, since in New Orleans the ship’s medical personnel will be dealing more with cases of dehydration, malnutrition and waterborne illness, rather than missing limbs and impact wounds.
As for crew members’ thinking about the region’s devastation, they are divided among those who said they were affected by images of the disaster and those who put it out of their minds and talked more about their duties.
“We are all moved by what’s going on. We hate the fact that this happened, but we feel very privileged that it is going to be us helping,” Gilbert said.
Herman Frazier, a 24-year Navy veteran and master chief petty officer on the Comfort, has a mother-in-law who lived in uptown New Orleans on Louisiana Avenue. She made it out of the city and should be flying to Virginia shortly, he said.
But even with his ties to the city, Frazier’s demeanor was inexpressive and his tone calm.
“I’m focused on the mission at hand,” he said.
As the Comfort went into its final stages of preparation, 24-year-old Antoneil Banton, store keeper 3rd class, could be seen on the deck taking a break and checking his cell phone.
Unlike Frazier, his thoughts focused on why the city’s situation was so dire in the first place.
“Why weren’t they prepared?” he asked. “Why were there so many people still in the city?”
Banton also said he was concerned about seeing dead bodies in the water and about preparing himself to see up close what so far has only been on a television screen. But he closed with a common sentiment on board.
“I’m ready for whatever happens.” – 30 –