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ONE-YEAR ANNIVERSARY SPECIAL REPORT

Iraq Journals

Glimpses of life in a war-torn country by GNS national security correspondent John Yaukey and photo director Jeff Franko.

Multimedia

Interactive timeline, image gallery

Recall key dates, browse defining photos from six weeks of combat in Iraq. (Requires Flash)

 

Recent headlines

General: Iraqi troops improve

January 26, 2005

Parties waging a polite battle to control Najaf

January 25, 2005

In Iraq, the question is: To vote or not to vote

January 25, 2005

Politics popular in Shiite areas

January 20, 2005

 

Also on the Web

Dispatches from Iraq

Special coverage and photo galleries of American troops serving in Iraq from The Honolulu Advertiser.

Iraq In-Depth

Take an interactive tour of Saddam's hide-out and capture at USATODAY.com's Iraq home page.

 

GNS Archive

Click here to browse more than 1,000 Iraq war news stories from the front lines and the home front.

 

 

Friday, April 4

Many of the soldiers who receive medical treatment on the USNS Comfort have been injured on routine duty. This unidentified Navy patient, left, talks with crew members about his leg injury. (Andrew Campbell/Nursing Spectrum)

Floating hospital is equipped for trauma, surgery

By Janet Boivin | The Nursing Spectrum

ABOARD THE USNS COMFORT, Persian Gulf - It's 1:30 a.m., two days after the start of the war in Iraq. Navy nurses Margaret Ann Connors, Anne Digs, Jeannie Ling, and Maryalice Morro are asleep in their bunks inside the female officers' berthing when an overhead announcement sounds: "Flight quarters, flight quarters...mass cal inbound, mass cal inbound.''

"Is it a drill?'' someone asks. "I think it is,'' another voice answers.

It doesn't matter. Within minutes, they are climbing into uniforms, lacing shoes, combing hair, gathering what they need, and heading for their duty stations.

Doors open from the berthing rooms into narrow halls. Nurses exit, moving rapidly and with determination, the sleep fading from their eyes. A mass casualty alert means six or more service members have been wounded and are being transported by helicopter from Iraq to the Comfort.

The nurses head to their work areas. Whether stationed in casualty receiving, the OR, the ICU or one of the medical and surgical units, they will be ready and waiting for any injured soldiers who are brought to the ship.

The mass casualty call isn't a drill. But the Comfort receives only two of eight possible patients. One other surprise: The two patients are not Americans; they are Iraqi soldiers, now classified as enemy prisoners of war.

By the end of the war's first week, the Comfort would receive a total of 40 patients, including 20 patients with combat-related injuries. The patients include American and coalition soldiers, Iraqi soldiers, Iraqi civilians and Iraqi freedom fighters. Under the Geneva Convention, individuals injured on the battlefield, whether friend or foe, must be medically treated, says the Comfort's commander, Capt. Chuck Blackenship.

The Comfort, a level three trauma center, is equipped for trauma and surgical procedures for penetrating wounds and internal injuries.

The Comfort left from its home port in Baltimore in January with a crew of approximately 225 to guide it to Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. In the beginning of March, about 800 additional crew members flew to Bahrain, a small island country near Saudi Arabia, to board the Comfort. The wait for war was relatively short. During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the Comfort sat in the gulf from August to the start of the war in December.

There are 157 nurses aboard the Comfort, ranging in age from the early 20s to the late 50s. The majority of the ship's staff come from the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., and other Naval medical facilities on the East Coast. There is also a small contingent of about 30 people from a Navy base in San Diego.

The nursing staff is unusually heavy with rank and experience. Commanders are working under the direction of other commanders, says Connors. Pediatric nurse practitioners, certified nurse-midwives, and neonatal ICU nurses are caring for adults in medical and surgical units.

Seven nurses sailed with the Comfort during the first Persian Gulf War, including Connors and Diggs.

Each day the hospital's units, especially the OR and ICU, seem busier as more casualties are flown to the ship. OR nurse Lt. j.g. John Broom, from Mississippi, says he's seeing more trauma-related cases, especially orthopedic procedures.

Cmdr. Regina Barbour, a division officer for one of the ship's medical and surgical units, felt several emotions when the war finally started. ``I was concerned for our service members and the Iraqi people, and I feared for my family in Washington, D.C.,'' she says.

Barbour is also worried about her hospital corpsmen, many of whom are young women and men new to the Navy and patient care. "I feel I have a lot of responsibility as a division officer to support the younger corpsmen who may identify with the soldiers they are treating.''

Hospital corpsman Christina Colla, 25, may be one of few corpsmen who feel prepared to treat war casualties. She was an EMT in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001, and helped people escape from the rubble of the twin towers. "That experience gave me the background I need to work in this environment,'' she says. "I had been thinking about joining the Navy, and September 11 gave it more urgency.''

Ensign Adrian Harwood, 22, a staff RN in the Comfort's psychiatric unit, has been in the Navy only six months. ``Even if you walk away from war physically unharmed, you don't walk away emotionally unchanged,'' she says.

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Janet Boivin, RN, editorial director for Nursing Spectrum's Greater Chicago/Tri-State division, was aboard the USNS Comfort March 21-25.