The huge U.S. Navy hospital ship Mercy is expected to arrive in the waters off the tsunami-devastated shores of Indonesia in the next few days, after a four-week voyage from its base in California. But the ship is not expected to be used much as a hospital. Rather it will be a base and resource center for mainly civilian medical and relief workers.
In an unusual move, the U.S. Navy says it has turned over the ship's relief operations to the private American group Project Hope, which has done ship- and land-based medical relief around the world for nearly 50 years. The move comes as Indonesian officials have called for foreign military relief efforts to be ended as soon as possible.
A spokesman for the Navy's Pacific Fleet in Hawaii, Lieutenant Adam Clampitt, says the ship will be used more as a medical and relief logistics base than as a hospital.
"It's going to be deploying to conduct humanitarian assistance operations in support of the relief effort, not specifically as a hospital ship,” said Mr. Clampitt. “The primary concern is to assist the host nations in unique ways to take care of their own citizens."
The 272-meter-long ship has 1,000 hospital beds and 12 fully-equipped operating rooms. But most of them will not be used. Instead, the team of 20 civilian doctors, 60 nurses and several medical technicians will do most of their work on shore. They will use Mercy's helicopters to visit areas affected by the tsunami, work with local medical officials to assess the needs, and treat patients mostly on shore.
But the Navy and Project Hope say some patients may be brought to the hospital ship for treatment, and the ship will also provide medical supplies and laboratories for the effort. The president of Project Hope, Dr. John Howe, says even now, six weeks after the disaster, there is a need for the capabilities his medical team, and the ship, bring to the area, particularly in the hard-hit Indonesian province of Banda Aceh.
"Six of the eight hospitals were destroyed,” said Dr. Howe. “The one major hospital, the military hospital, is overwhelmed with patients and there is a specific need for certain kinds of care. For example, the care of patients with head trauma. There's no CAT scan capability in Banda Aceh. There is on the ship."
Dr. Howe says the medical team includes surgeons and specialists in child health care, as well as nurses who specialize in providing emergency care and intensive care to the critically injured.
The civilian medical team boarded the hospital ship in Singapore this week for the final part of its voyage to Indonesia. This team will stay in the region for 30 days, and another team is being prepared to go for a further 30 days. At that time, Project Hope, the Navy and local governments will assess whether there is a need for further assistance.
The deployment comes as the U.S. military has been reducing its relief effort in the tsunami region, in part in response to a desire by the Indonesian government to limit the amount of time the foreign forces are there. But officials also say the need is easing, as local and international civilian relief efforts get organized for long-term relief.
U.S. military medical teams have treated thousands of tsunami victims in Indonesia, Thailand and Sri Lanka in recent weeks, and taken some to Navy ships for advanced treatment. The military has also delivered more than 11,000 tons of relief supplies, using airplanes, helicopters and amphibious boats.