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Floating US Navy Hospital Heads to Haiti


The U.S. Navy hospital ship Comfort is heading to Haiti to help treat survivors of last week's devastating earthquake.

The Comfort is, essentially, a floating hospital.

"All right, bed capacity: In casualty receiving, I have 50 beds," said Lieutenant Commander Dan D'Aurora, the Division Officer for Casualty Receiving on the USNS Comfort. "We've got 12 operating rooms; we've got 20 recovery beds. We have 80 intensive care beds, 400 intermediate care and 500 minimal care."

"This is essentially a hospital within a ship," he said. "In other words, they took a supertanker into the drydock, they hollowed it out like a canoe and dropped in the hospital, plain and simple."

A hospital that is now staffed by more than 550 medical professionals, including doctors, nurses, psychiatrists and a variety of surgeons. They boarded the ship in the port of Baltimore Friday evening, arriving there on short notice from across the United States. Now, they are cruising toward Haiti at speeds of up to 24 kilometers per hour.

They try to bring pieces of home with them to this ship that will become both home and workplace for weeks or even months.

"I put all my pictures back up, and you bring special treats like food," said one staff member. "Like, I am a coffee fanatic, so I had to have my Starbucks."

On board, the Comfort feels almost entirely like a hospital. It has wide corridors, signs pointing toward various wards or calling for people to wear scrubs (hospital attire) in sterile areas. If it were not for the rolling and listing (of the ship), the glimpses of the sea from certain passageways and a general hum, one could almost forget it is a ship.

But it is a different world on the external decks of this white 10-story vessel, emblazoned with a red cross.

That is Deck Officer Joe Krans. He is one of the men and women responsible for the sea-faring elements of this floating hospital. Krans has been on Comfort humanitarian missions before, including trips to Haiti, but this is the first time it will be in response to a disaster there.

"This is totally different because, you know, [during] the other ones [missions], I could walk around Haiti in certain places that weren't dangerous, and it was just, you know, vast poverty, kind of sad. But, now, will be, you know, unfortunately, it will be the smell of death," said Krans.

On the eve of the ship's Saturday departure from Baltimore, the Surgeon General of the U.S. Navy, Vice Admiral Adam Robinson, addressed hundreds of camoflauge-clad men and women gathered in the ship's dining hall. He characterized this situation as "very intense, very critical," and called the Comfort "the best medical facility in the Caribbean." And in a speech that was equal parts pep-talk and thank you, he prepared them for the scope of the challenge that awaits them in Port-au-Prince.

"I did a humanitarian mission in Haiti. I've had medical professionals there. I've seen the stress of humanitarian missions in Haiti. That was without earthquake," he said. "You're going to have all that, plus an earthquake."

Doctor Robinson said he expects to have Naval and medical assets in Haiti for a minimum of six months and likely even longer than that.

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