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American Forces Press Service

USNS Comfort to Provide Vital Part of Relief

By Ian Graham
Special to American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Jan. 19, 2010 – As thousands of people and billions of dollars come flowing into Haiti from around the world, the Navy could be supplying one of the most vital pieces of the relief effort: the hospital ship USNS Comfort.

Navy Cmdr. Mark Marino, director of nursing aboard the Comfort, joined a “DoDLive” bloggers roundtable today to explain the range of patient-care capabilities the ship carries and to discuss how the Comfort carries out a relief mission like the one in Haiti.

The ship’s capacity is about 1,000 beds, he said. Some 400 to 600 of those are for “low-acuity” patients who don’t need much care, and another 400 are for more severely injured patients who have undergone surgery or have special needs such as a continuous IV or special dressing changes.

The ship normally has 60 intensive-care beds, Marino said, but he’s expanded that capacity to 80 beds, anticipating more severe injuries. A 50-bed emergency room is on board for first-aid and immediate care, as well as eight to 11 operating rooms.

“So all of the patients that come from either other ships in the area or from Haiti itself will come to our casualty receiving,” Marino said. “Any emergency lifesaving measures will be addressed there, and then they'll either be taken to surgery or they'll be admitted to either a surgical ward or a medical ward or my intensive care unit.”

Marino said he hopes the ship can be staffed enough to allow maximum capacity for treatment; the Comfort generally partners with nongovernment organizations, ranging from nonprofit organizations such as Operation Smile and Project Hope to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. On the Comfort’s last mission, 10 to 15 groups contributed, either by supplying volunteers or by donating material goods.

“There is an Operation Smile representative on board,” Marino said. “Their mission has been traditionally to do cleft palate care to young children, but they have offered up surgeons and other staff to help care for our patients in other areas.

“[The LDS church] were partners with us on our last mission,” he continued. “They have orthopedic surgeons, emergency surgeons, general surgeons, pediatric, all the specialties in nursing, as well as ancillary services [and] respiratory technicians. And they are all willing to jump in, and they've got people standing by.”

Volunteers from other organizations, he said, will begin rotating into the ship in coming weeks.

“They are assessing how they can fit into the organization, but in such short notice, we wanted to get our military folks up and running and on the ship, and get them in country as quickly as we could,” Marino said. “And then we are now making arrangements to start that partnership with the various [nongovernmental organizations] that'll be joining us.”

The Comfort is scheduled to arrive in Haiti the morning of Jan. 20, when it will join the USS Bataan and USS Carl Vinson, taking on patients the other ships and the hospitals on the ground can’t help.

“We already have a list [of high-priority patients] from the Vinson; I imagine the Bataan is going to do the same thing,” Marino said. “There is, I believe, a surgical hospital -- I'm not sure if it's an Army field hospital or who's in there -- but we already have one of the {Defense Department] military hospitals in country with a backlog, and they are all ready to send us patients as well,” Marino said.

The Vinson, Bataan and Comfort will have strategic pick-up points where helicopters from each ship will retrieve patients and bring them aboard to receive treatment.

“I believe right now we're embedding at least a trauma surgeon and possibly another physician to triage what patients would be suitable to come out to the Comfort,” Marino said. “And hopefully that will be some of our focal point, at least initially.”

The medical presence on the ground should expand in the next week or two to help in treating critical patients sooner. But for now, he said, the focus is relieving the backlog of patients and getting them aboard the Comfort.

“Slowly we'll start to set up in country our own triage points at some of the places we've actually been in the past when we were doing our mission this past summer,” he said.

(Ian Graham works in the Defense Media Activity’s emerging media directorate.)

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