But the Comfort, with 566 crew and medical staff, will have its own challenges. "We will be dealing with the effects of wading in water tainted by feces, and doing without a regular diet, and not showering for 10 days," Lt. Cmdr. Carlos Rodriguez, director of surgical services, said in a medical staff meeting. "We'll be seeing infections, people who are dehydrated, and diabetics and others who have not had their regular medication."
The ship set sail at 11:17 p.m. Friday, having gotten its orders midday Friday from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The Navy had told its personnel two days earlier that deployment was likely and to "make sure you have your personal affairs in order," said Ellen Maurer, deputy public affairs officer for the National Naval Medical Center, in Bethesda, Md. The ship stopped Monday at Naval Station Mayport, near Jacksonville, Fla., to pick up additional crew.
In a drill yesterday afternoon, crew members played the role of patients and acted out 20 scripts. They were lined up at one of the entrances and, one by one, were triaged, searched for weapons, and rushed upstairs to the casualty receiving area for further evaluation.
The Comfort is one of two virtually identical Navy hospital ships in the fleet of the Military Sealift Command, the Navy's logistics unit. The other, the Mercy, which is not involved in the relief efforts, is based on the Pacific Coast. Both were built as 894-foot-long supertankers and were converted, before carrying oil, to hospital ships in the late 1980s.
The gleaming-white ships, adorned with red crosses, have been deployed to Iraq for war duty and, more recently, to Indonesia for tsunami relief. They have 12 operating rooms and are staffed and equipped to handle anything big-city hospitals' trauma centers can.
But they sit idle much of the time, maintained by a skeleton crew to be ready to fire their 25,000-horsepower boilers and sail within five days. So, early in each mission, hours are spent with all hands - professional staff included - scrubbing surfaces and toting boxes.
Patients can arrive from docks if the ship is in port. There is a platform where boats can unload patients and a flight deck that can handle the Navy's largest helicopters.
On this mission, the Navy medical staff will be assisted by as many as 82 professional medical volunteers from Project HOPE - Health Opportunities for People Everywhere. Dana Braner, chief of pediatric critical care at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, was the first Project HOPE volunteer to come aboard.
This is his 17th volunteer disaster mission. He has dealt with the casualties of fires, floods, storms and earthquakes, and last year's tsunami. He has been busy coaching those who will be working their first full-scale disaster.
Many who have spent careers treating Navy personnel, who say "Yes, sir" a lot and are trained to follow instructions, will be dealing for the first time with angry and upset civilians.
Many of the Navy personnel volunteered for this mission, some cutting short or postponing vacations. Lt. Christopher Colby, a lawyer for the Navy's Judge Advocate General's Corps, said news of the storm brought back memories of Hurricane Andrew's taking the roof off his family home in Florida.
He has spent the last three days helping crewmates, some of whom left home on 24 hours' notice, with legal issues such as drafting powers of attorney.
Lt. Cassandra Sanders, who grew up in North Philadelphia, where her mother, Cordelia Bradley, still lives, is an operating room nurse at Bethesda Naval Hospital near Baltimore and on the Comfort core staff. She is a perioperative nurse - which means she is the advocate for patients being prepared for surgery.
She is always on call, ready to leave her husband and 17-year-old son on short notice. "I have my gear ready," she said, "and I'm prepared to stay until the mission's done."
The top brass were preparing for several scenarios late yesterday, awaiting instructions from commanders on the scene about their precise mission. The ship might serve both as a hospital and as a hotel for weary relief workers.
It may dock tomorrow at either New Orleans or Pascagoula, Miss.
If fresh water is not available in large quantities, the ship may anchor offshore, where it can produce its own drinking water, which it cannot do in polluted harbors.
Initially, only a quarter of its beds will be in hospital use, but the ship will still require about 60,000 gallons of water a day, said Thomas Finger, of Oviedo, Fla., the ship's civilian captain.
Many of the medical staff have never been to sea. So there has been a lot of training over the last three days about life aboard ship. There have been lessons as mundane as how to take a "Navy shower" to conserve water - get wet, turn off water, lather up, then turn water back on and rinse quickly.
Yesterday, the training shifted to intense medical drills, to ensure all hands know about patient flow, where things are, and whom to call when things break.
Many, including Capt. Frances Stewart, the ship psychiatrist, are being trained as lifeboat commanders - and taking the duty with good humor. In her long Navy career, she said, "this will be the only Navy vessel I get to command."
Contact staff writer Henry J. Holcomb at 215-854-2614 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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he can be reached at email@example.com.
Staff writer Joseph N. DiStefano contributed to this article.
Type: Converted oil tanker
Mission: Navy hospital ship
Ship crew: Civilian mariners
Medical staff: From Navy hospitals
Specialties aboard: All
Patient beds: 1,000
Operating rooms: 12
Kidney dialysis units: 2
Weapons systems: None
Length: 894 feet
Width: 106 feet
Power plant: Steam
Top speed: 17 m.p.h.
Delivered to Navy: 1987
SOURCE: U.S. Navy
For more about the USNS Comfort, including photographs, go to the ship's Web site via http://go.philly.com/comfort