Caribbean Sea - The first patient treated aboard the Military Sealift Command hospital ship USNS Comfort (T-AH 20), was accompanied by Wilma Santiago, who is one of the many Puerto Ricans whose life was shaken up by Hurricane Maria.
"We had nowhere to stay," said Santiago, whose home was damaged by the Category 4 hurricane. "The [Pavia] Hospital had too many patients."
Comfort arrived in Puerto Rico October 3, and has been coordinating with FEMA, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Puerto Rico Department of Health to deliver medical care and supplies.
"My expectations were to come out here and basically provide the same level of care that I would have provided at Camp Lejeune," said Lt. Cmdr. Robert Oldt, an emergency medicine physician aboard Comfort and the assistant department head of the emergency medicine department at Naval Medical Center Camp Lejeune. "We've had some pretty sick patients and they're getting great care in the ICU. But we've also been able to relieve those little thing that majority of people have been without since Maria. It's been gratifying to just be able to help in any little way for them. We know how hard it's been for them."
The hospital ship has one of the largest trauma facilities in the United States and is equipped with four X-ray machines, one CT scan unit, a dental suite, an optometry lens laboratory, physical therapy center, pharmacy, angiography suite and two oxygen-producing plants.
"A lot of patients were very thankful for us to just be able to provide the minimalist of care," said Oldt. "Even when we weren't doing a lot of interventions, just refilling medications that they've been out of for couple of weeks or giving them relief for their asthma attacks and things like that."
Comfort's staff is diverse with specialists from pediatric pulmonologists and orthopedics to trauma surgeons and intensive care nurses. They are able to provide the same, full spectrum of care at sea as typical hospitals ashore.
"This boat was here to care for the people affected by the hurricane. It surprised me; I was so grateful. I was sad by all the people on the island. There were a lot of people in need," Santiago said.
Santiago is at sea with the ship and will depart when her companion is discharged. Experiencing hurricane Maria and then going out to sea in a floating hospital has been surreal.
"There were a bit of questions though and I was a little bit intimidated," Santiago said about embarking.
"I think that here, they gave us everything to make us feel comfortable. The only complaint is the wavy thing," Santiago said about the rocking of the ship. "It is not easy for all the military people to be here for months on this wavy thing, working and taking care of patients."
Comfort has treated 78 patients ranging from six months to 89 years in age and performed numerous procedures such as exploratory laparotomy, gastrostomy tube placement, colectomies, sacral-decubitus ulcer debridement, as well as treated for wounds, hernias and pneumonia.
"I think that here they gave us everything to make us feel comfortable," said Santiago. "I mean, we were a little bit desperate with the hurricane. Also, because all the water, all the rain. Right now we don't even know how long it will take to have lights, to have air conditioning, to have water. But right now, we are safe."
Comfort is part of the whole-of-government response effort and is assisting Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the lead federal agency, in helping those affected by Hurricane Maria and to minimize suffering.