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January 22, 2010

mercy ship arrives in Port-au-Prince

Hospital ship greeted by Haiti's stark reality
Victims stream aboard from a steady procession of helicopters
    Robert Little
  Baltimore Sun
   January 21, 2010
    The faces of the Haitian disaster arrived Wednesday aboard the Navy hospital ship Comfort as a procession of earthquake victims, looking lost and scared, staggered off helicopters or strained to look up from their stretchers while corpsmen carried them below deck.  They came from clinics and triage centers across Haiti, beginning just after sunrise and ending at dusk, shattering the ship's military and clinical sterility with the cries and smells and blank stares of human anguish

The patients were flown in by the Navy, Coast Guard or Air Force in one of the 30 helicopters available within the ship's range. Plans for a boat-based shuttle were foiled by an earthquake aftershock that flattened the pier the Comfort had expected to use and that jolted the ship as if it had hit ground. Ship officials identified an alternate boat-landing site by midafternoon.

Operations were also hindered Wednesday by the slow arrival of more than 350 crew members who are expected to bring the vessel up to its full 1,000-bed, 12 operating room capacity. Most of those crew members, expected to join the ship during the next two to three days, will arrive by boat. But even with the slowed startup, the ship's main treatment and assessment rooms seemed on the verge of being overwhelmed. As one helicopter touched down on the Comfort's flight deck, three or more could sometimes be seen circling over Port-au-Prince harbor.

At the ship's medical receiving area, the first stop of any patient aboard, the same scene was repeated throughout the day: Elevator doors rumbled open to reveal a bewildered collection of men or women, some on stretchers, some in wheelchairs, all gaping at the mad frenzy and bright lights of the Navy's flagship of disaster response. They wore bloody bandages and wounds wrapped in old sheets or clothing. Some had tape or stickers affixed to their shirts, bearing messages from the triage team such as "chronic renal failure" or "left leg."

By early afternoon, some surgeons were calling for more operating rooms to open, a challenge before the rest of the crew arrives. The idea was resisted by others, however, because it could tie up all of the surgical teams and leave them vulnerable if an emergency patient arrived.  There was little time for arguing though, as the elevator doors kept opening.

The ship had been preparing for this day since it left Baltimore on Friday, testing equipment, unpacking supplies and holding trauma drills. But the human reality of what the crew will face - and what Haitians have struggled with for a week - became evident on one of Wednesday's first flights. He was a young Haitian whose crusting burns covered his head, concealing most of his features.

"A number of them have been injured in the last few days by walls falling on them in structures where they were trying to sleep," said Cmdr. Tim Donahue, head of surgery on the Comfort. "It shows how dangerous Haiti still is, and how much work we have to do."

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