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A portable hospital sails around the globe

Aboard the Navy ship Comfort, a crew of 1,500 transports medical care

August 02, 2009|Jessica Carballo

FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. — They call it "a hospital wrapped around a ship." But to the tens of thousands its crew helped during a four-month tour of Latin America, the Comfort is a miracle.

"It's really a partnership of the Americas," said Chad Singer, 22, a Navy hospital corpsman from Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "The military isn't just about war. We have a whole humanitarian aspect."

Rows of beds, computer screens, microscopes and machines extend for 894 feet inside the Comfort, a full-service medical facility on water. The ship docked in Port Everglades recently en route to its home port in Baltimore.

From April to July, the Comfort's crew traveled to seven countries, performed more than 1,600 surgeries, wrote nearly 200,000 prescriptions and provided 43,000 pairs of glasses. All told, the crew treated more than 100,000 people who lacked access to advanced medical care. One-third of the patients were children.

"In Iraq or Afghanistan, if I'm busy with patients, it's been a very bad day. There has been some sort of catastrophe," said Navy Cmdr. Tim Donahue, the ship's director of surgery. "Here, if I'm busy, it's a great day."

Working on water posed a unique challenge for the surgeons aboard the Comfort.

"It got rough a couple times. We had to tie things down," said Lt. Cmdr. Thomas Olivero, operating room department head.

The two most common surgeries were for cataracts and hernias, but doctors also corrected cleft palates and mended broken bones.

The ship's crew of 1,500, made up of international military personnel and local volunteers, worked out of 12 operating rooms and four intensive care units using state-of-the-art equipment.

The ship spent 10 days at each of the ports in the Dominican Republic, Haiti, El Salvador and Nicaragua, among others. Total cost: an estimated $25 million.

"We're not waving the American flag around; we're just there to help," Donahue said. "If we're not helping people, then we're not doing a good job."

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jcarballo@sunsentinel.com

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