Monday, March 15, 2010


In the Navy, we frequently refer to some event in the future as being "X number of days and a wake-up." If something was going to happen a week from now, we would refer to that as "seven days and a wake-up!"

We left Haiti on the evening of March 9th headed for Norfolk. At that time we were "Four days and a wake-up!" Then we had a propulsion plant casualty that left us dead in the water for four hours. For three hours and 59 minutes, my only thought was, "How many days now?" Then, the problem was fixed, and we were off again!

On Wedensday, March 10th, President Obama had a news conference in the Rose garden, attended by two of our crew from COMFORT, where he talked about Haiti, and we watched him, thinking, "Three days and a wake-up!"

On Thursday, we had an MWR day on the flight deck (MWR stands for Morale, Welfare and Recreation). This was basically a chance for people to recreate a little, play some basketball and football and never forget that we were "Two days and a wake-up."

On Friday, we finalized all the plans for our arrival in Norfolk, including all of the VIPs who would be visiting us and as all these details were falling into place, we couldn't help but think that it was only "One more day and a wake-up!"

So I went to bed Friday night, tingling from anticipation of the coming day! I couldn't wait to get to sleep, because then it would be Saturday! I laid down at 10:00pm and started to quickly drift off to sleep. Then at 10:05: 'Hooonnnnkkkkk' (A mind-numbing, bed shaking fog horn located about 30 feet behind and above my rack). Then at 10:07: 'Hooonnnnkkkk,' at 10:09: 'Hooonnnkkkk,' at 10:11: 'Hooonnnkkkk,' at 10:13: 'Hooonnnkkkk,' . . . at 05:59: 'Hooonnnkkkk!'

And then Saturday arrived. All that was left was the "Wake-up!" Reveille sounded at 0600 and the crew sprang to life. It was about 64 degrees in my stateroom that morning (A ship like the COMFORT doesn't shift quickly from the 90 degrees of Haiti to the 49 degrees of Norfolk!) I decided that it was time for the XO to do what he had admonished everyone to NOT do during the whole deployment! It was Hollywood shower time! Throughout this deployment, and the one before, I had repeatedly scolded the crew to conserve water!! For seven months of the last year, I have kept my showering to less than two minutes of water flowing per day: 30 seconds of getting wet! (Turn the water off) Lather up. One minute of rinsing off and you're done! But Saturday morning was a whole different world! No need to conserve water now! Time to truly indulge! So as I got in the shower Saturday, I couldn't help myself! This time, I waited for the water to warm up before I got in the shower! I spent nearly 30 seconds getting wet! Kept the water running for the 30 seconds that I lathered up, and then rinsed off for another minute! Now that was living!!

We were supposed to be pierside at 10:30am, but being the overachievers that we are, we were on track to arrive at 10:00am. But as the fog-horn continued to sound throughout the morning, it became apparent that we might have a problem. Whenever a ship like the COMFORT comes into port, she is met by a harbor pilot who guides the ship into the harbor. In Noroflk, there is also a pier pilot who takes us the last little distance and ensures the ship safely arrives at the pier. The problem is, you really need to be able to see the pier at some point before you hit it. The COMFORT weighs 69,000 Long Tons. That's about 151 Million pounds. When you get that much mass moving even very slowly, it can be hard to stop or redirect its movement.

As I was looking off the bridge toward the water, there were times when I couldn't see anything even 100 feet away from the ship. The fog was so thick that as we passed over the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel we couldn't see any sign of the roadway at all.

So we inched along at only about one mile per hour hoping that the clowds would part, the fog would lift and we would be able to see the pier. Finally, with the pier only a couple of hundred feet off the bow of the ship, it finally came into view and the skilled Mariners who drive this beast brought her in flawlessly to the pier.

My wife took these pictures from the shore as we arrived. The Red Cross on the front of the ship slowly appeared through the fog and as the ship slid slowly up to the pier, the clouds broke, the sun broke through and Saturday turned into a beautiful day!

Their were over 400 people waiting for our arrival and as soon as the ship was cleared by customs, they were all brought aboard to meet their family onboard the ship. It was quite a hoot!

Leading the families onto the ship were six Flag officers: Five Admirals and One General who all came to thank the crew of the Mighty COMFORT for their truly heroic efforts in support of OPERATION UNIFIED RESPONSE - HAITI. They said a few words, shook a few hands and soon were on their way. We set the watch, called away Liberty Call, and we all went ashore for the first time in 60 days.

So then we were in Norfolk, and about five days later, we sailed up the Chesapeake Bay and arrived at our home port in Baltimore. We were met by families, hundreds of school children, lots of media, and my dog, Ruffy. It was pretty special.

Now, suddenly, two months have passed and I found that I never actually published this blog entry. Well, better late than never.

Shortly after our return, the COMFORT family suffered a tragic loss: About two weeks after safely steering us through the fog to arrive in Norfolk, and then safely bringing us home to Baltimore, the ship's Master, Captain Bob Holley suffered a heart attack and died in his home in Virginia Beach, VA. A veteran Master of both hospital ships as well as a long career in the Military Sealift Command, Captain Holley will truly be missed by those who knew him.

So, now we are back in our Reduced Operating Status and the ship is a ghost ship again. We spend lots of time showing her off to all kinds of tour groups who come for visits, but the hustle and bustle that is so much a part of every day underway is gone.

I am getting short. (That's a Navy term for getting ready to transfer). My relief has been identified: Captain Kathy Becker, NC, USN. She will be arriving onboard at the beginning of July and I will turn over the reigns to her on or about July 12th. Then I will be off to my next assignment: Navy Medicine Training Center, Ft. Sam Houston, San Antonio, Texas! Where I will get to take young skulls full of mush and turn them into the next generation of highly trained, highly skilled, dedicated professionals who will pick up the gauntlet and carry Navy Medicine into the future!

Of course, anything can happen between now and then and the crew of the COMFORT is ready to respond! It has been an honor to have been able to serve along side some of the most heroic, hard-working, never-say-quit people I have ever had the pleasure to know. I will miss them all!

And for you, dear readers, should this be my last blog entry as the XO of the Mighty COMFORT, I hope that you have enjoyed these posts and that they have given you a little insight into life onboard America's Most Prestigious Ship!

For now at least: XO Signing Off!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Wow! It's been almost a month?

I can't believe that it's been almost a month since my last post. It's not that there hasn't been anything to talk about, nor is it that I haven't had the time. Actually, shortly after my last post, the bottom dropped out as far as any new patients coming to the ship. And although my work days are still generally about 14 hours or so, the pace certainly changed.

I think the reason is that early on, writing on this blog was almost cathartic as a means of emotional release. As things slowed down, the day ended not with me needing to unload emotionally, but just needing to go to bed!

So, anyway, here's whats been going on over the last month: From our peak census of about 500 patients onboard, we steadily started discharging patients, even as more came aboard. We had about 31 of what we termed "Difficult to Place" patients who we were very concerned about whether or not we would be able to find a place for them to go here in Haiti. These were paraplegics, quadraplegics, and patients with traumatic brain injuries. It wasn't easy, and took lots of partnership building with a number of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) here in Haiti, but eventually, we were able to place all 31 into local facilities.

On February 27th, we discharged our last patient, pictured here! Then came the hard part: Waiting for the word to head home. We were told from the beginning that we would be here as long as the President needed us to be, so the process of convincing people up the Chain of Command that the need for the Hospital Ship had passed was not a quick task. I don't know if President Obama actually made the decision or not, but finally yesterday at 1:00pm we got the word that we would be leaving! And last night at 7:00pm the anchor came up and we put to sea headed non-stop for Norfolk, Va! Look out Norfolk! Here we come!

But if you listened to the President today from the Rose Garden, he made the point that the work in Haiti is not done. So why bring the COMFORT home now? Good question! Here's the answer: Our mission here was to provide care that was not available in Haiti. At first, that meant any complex surgery came to the ship, as well as many critically ill due to infection. Over the last 50 days that we have been here, a tremendous flood of capability came into the country, and the local hospitals have steadily been coming online to their pre-earthquake capability. So by the middle of February, there were very few cases that couldn't be handled by facilities ashore. We continued to provide some diagnostic services such as CT scans, but eventually, even those facilities were back in business in Haiti. At last count there were five CT scanners and one MRI working in the country. So, it's time for us to go!

Also, there is such a thing as the law of unintended consequences. You might think it's a great thing for the United States to provide all kinds of free health care for the people of Haiti. But the problem with that is that then their medical professionals, clinics and hospitals can't make a living, can't cover their costs, and so can't continue to provide care, and even more people will not have access to care. There have been protests in the streets of Haiti by Haitian physicians who are being driven out of business by all the wonderful help that has come to Haiti. The help is needed, but it needs to be balanced with a strategy that will not end up hurting the country even more in the long run. So, we did what we came to do: Provide services until the country's healthcare system could return to pre-earthquake capabilities. Now it's time for me to kiss my wife! Brace yourself, Debbie!

It has been 53 days since we set sail from Baltimore and in less than three days we will be back in Norfolk! It will be good to get back! My wife will be driving down from Maryland to meet us when we arrive and I can't wait to see her! We will have a couple of days together before she heads home and I go back to the ship. By the end of next week we will hopefully be back in Baltimore and we can put COMFORT back to bed! Then I can say hi to Ruffy! He's just such a boy!

At 6:45pm this evening we were 1018 miles as the crow flies from Pier 12 in Norfolk! Let's see how far we can get in a day!