BALTIMORE – It has been an erratic six weeks for the USNS Comfort, the Navy’s floating hospital dispatched to the hurricane-devastated Gulf Coast region.
By the time the ship returned to Baltimore Thursday, the medical staff had spent more time treating cuts and bruises from cleanup efforts than on the malnourishment and dehydration cases it had anticipated when it first embarked Sept. 2.
“We were helping people getting hurt while refurbishing their houses,” said Senior Medical Officer Russell Gilbert.
Early in its mission, the Comfort’s destination changed from New Orleans to Pascagoula, Miss., partly at the urging of Sen. Trent Lott, who was concerned about his home state. Eventually the ship went to New Orleans in late September, but was underused there because the city’s population was sparse.
Part of the high expectations came from New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, who had made public calls for residents to return to the city, which were quashed by the U.S. Northern Command running the federal relief effort in the region.
Still, the Comfort’s emergency treatment facilities, including 12 operating rooms, saw a bit of action, since it was usually the only major trauma center open.
Cmdr. Agnes Bradley-Wright of the Navy Nurse Corps recalled an instance in which a man had suffered a serious head injury from a car accident.
“We didn’t think he was going to make it,” she said. “He did, and his family stayed with us the whole time.”
At times the sea hospital proved vital, however, the low overall patient load helped convince the Military Sealift Command, which operates the Comfort, to call it home.
“We expected more patients in New Orleans,” said Capt. Thomas Allingham. “But people did not return.”
But while in the region, the ship’s crew and medical staff had their fair share of challenges. While in Mississippi, to make it easier for ailing residents to get medical care, they set up a series of makeshift clinics in the surrounding communities.
The first was at a restaurant in the abandoned Singing River Mall in Pascagoula, where 376 patients received treatment.
“We brought in people, equipment and tons of medicine,” Gilbert said.
On board, 1,452 patients were treated during the ship’s 10-day stay in Mississippi.
The Comfort also reprised the major role it served in its New York mission after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, by serving as a respite for first responders and emergency workers who needed a quick nap, good meal and change of clothes before returning to the aftermath of Katrina.
As she set foot in her home port city for the first time in a month and a half, Cmdr. Leanne York-Slagle, also of the Navy Nurse Corps, spoke of one way to ensure that the personal impact of this mission did not end with the docking of the Comfort.
“I’ll remember helping other Americans. Plus, I got a lot of their phone numbers and e-mails.” – 30 – CNS-10-14-05