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January 18, 2010

For USNS Comfort, a chance to prove something

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As the USNS Comfort buzzed Sunday with preparations, word came that the ship would add more crew members and be pushed to the outer boundary of its capabilities. The ship left Baltimore with enough crew and supplies to run the equivalent of a 250-bed hospital and four operating rooms — about a quarter of its theoretical limits. With the additional crew, which will board in Haiti, the 894-foot ship will reach its full operational capacity for the first time since it was delivered to the Navy in 1987.

So even before Comfort’s arrival in Haiti later this week, its already frenzied deployment has turned into a mission that will strain the ship’s limits and test the Navy’s capacity for expeditionary medicine. And for the vessel itself — whose missions to wars, disasters and impoverished countries the last two decades has left a wake of critics who say the Baltimore-based ship is too slow and cumbersome — Haiti could provide the first chance to show what it can really do.

“This is the right way to use this ship,” said Cmdr. Tim Donahue, a urological surgeon from Bethesda and director of surgery for the mission to Haiti. “It doesn’t make sense for us to go down there with only four operating rooms when we have 12 that we can use. If we’re down there, we need to maximize the capability of the ship. And we are.”

Since 2007 Comfort has twice sailed on months-long humanitarian missions around Central and South America, making scheduled stops to set up health clinics and bring patients aboard for elective surgery.

But those missions — which carried more public affairs specialists than surgeons — were more about foreign relations than disaster medicine. Each tour took more than a year to plan and coordinate, and the ship stuck to a rigid schedule even when hurricanes or floods presented unexpected emergencies within its range.

While hailed as peacetime successes, the humanitarian missions raised questions within the Navy about their military value. And they exposed the complexities of using a giant ship — which often can’t sail within a mile of land because of inadequate water depth and port facilities in developing countries — to help patients on the ground.

Baltimore Sun photo by Kim Hairston

Posted by Robert Little at 4:00 AM |
About the reporters
Reporter Robert Little, a native Baltimorean, has worked at The Baltimore Sun for 11 years. A former national correspondent, he has reported on military medical issues, and was the recipient of a George Polk Award for a series of articles about an experimental drug used on U.S. service members in Iraq. He also reported from Louisiana in 2005 on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Photographer Kim Hairston, a native of Cincinnati, Ohio, has worked at The Baltimore Sun for 21 years. She studied photojournalism at Ohio University as a master degree candidate. While on assignment for The Sun, she has covered a number of assignments including Catholic Relief Service outreach in Ecuador; AIDS and squalor in Soweto, South Africa and hurricane relief in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

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