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Hospital Ship Prepares for Deployment

December 31, 2002

BALTIMORE (AP) _ With 50 emergency room beds, 12 operating rooms and decontamination facilities, the Navy’s hospital ship Comfort is equipped to handle the worst, including a bioterrorism attack.

The 1,000-bed ship, painted white with red crosses, is being readied to set sail from its port in Baltimore for the island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, where it will help U.S. forces prepare for a possible war against Iraq.

``We’re ready for just about anything,″ said Charles Blankenship, commanding officer of the ship’s Medical Treatment Facility. ``I think what most of the physicians will be concerned about is having a patient come in who has contamination and who has conventional injuries associated with that and needs to be treated urgently.″

In case of a bioterrorism attack, the ship will set up decontamination equipment on the flight deck, where helicopters bring patients before the victims are taken to the emergency rooms. The ship also has a new unit for patients who need to be in isolation.

The crew is made up of 61 civilians and 225 Navy personnel.

On Monday, crew members carried boxes of Coke, Marlboro cigarettes and M&Ms down the pale green hallways of the ship, while others tested medical equipment and made other preparations.

No date for departure has been set yet, said Lt. Cmdr. Ed Austin. ``Our job now is to get ready.″

Petty Officer Alhaji Kabba, a native of West Africa, rested in a doorway after loading crates of soft drinks. The five-year Navy veteran said he is ready to go but is sad to leave his girlfriend and family.

``They are afraid,″ said the 27-year-old, who reassures them that he is ``going to come back in one piece.″

The crew conducts training exercises every three months aboard the ship so that is ready to be called at any time.

The Comfort’s last unscheduled deployment was in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attack, when it sailed to New York to treat the injured. But the number of injured proved to be small, and the ship instead provided meals, beds and laundry service for more than 2,200 rescue workers.

The Comfort, a converted oil tanker, is only one of two U.S. hospital ships of its size. Its sister ship, the USNS Mercy, is based in San Diego.

In case of rough waters, each operating room is equipped with horseshoe-style rings mounted on the floor to anchor medical equipment.

On board, the crew members will have access to e-mail, the occasional Hollywood movie and a once-a-month fancy dinner.

``Steak and lobster,″ said Jack Slattery, sitting in his office where he orders food for the ship. ``It’s a morale-booster.″

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On the Net:

USNS Comfort: http://www.msc.navy.mil/inventory/ships.asp?shipcomfort&typeHospitalShip

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