Amid Puerto Rico Disaster, Hospital Ship Admitted Just 6 Patients a Day

Following public debate over the Trump administration’s initial reluctance to deploy it, the Comfort arrived fourteen days in to the disaster, after a few of the medical urgency had abated. Its mission and capabilities were opaque to numerous doctors on the island. It lacked the opportunity to treat some important regions of need, and the complicated referral procedures made little feeling on a battered island with scant electric power or telephone service.


The result, combined with reluctance of some hospitals to lose their own patients, fell far short of what the Comfort could have provided, medical authorities said.

“These were prepared for anything other than the reality of Puerto Rico,” said José Vargas Vidot, a doctor and independent senator in the Puerto Rican Senate whose charity, Iniciativa Comunitaria, supported the post-hurricane medical clinic directed by Dr. Rosado. “It had been like a vision in the harbor. Everybody was seeking at the Relaxation, like seeking to build hope. But in the reality it was extremely frustrating to get gain access to.”

Staffed with 800 staff and costing $180,000 a day, the ship received an average of 36 people a day since outpatients or inpatients. (A New York Occasions reporter was one of them, given an X-ray and remedies for an asthmatic cough). And that number swelled just after a public furor erupted over the ship’s empty beds.

“That’s not the proper dilemma,” said Capt. Kevin Buckley, the commander of the ship’s medical facility, when asked just how many sufferers were admitted. The proper question, he said, was: “What kind of patients have you got?”

The patients who found its way to the first weeks “were as unwell as the sickest patient in virtually any I.C.U. where I’ve worked,” said Capt. José A. Acosta, the United States Third Fleet surgeon, a Puerto Rican-trained medical professional who offered as a liaison with the Comfort.

In every, 191 surgeries, including 25 significant orthopedic cases, were performed aboard the ship. Doctors delivered two infants and diagnosed seven people with cancer. One girl had a dual mastectomy, and the ship stuffed the oxygen tanks for a large number of sufferers who needed help breathing. It required in some sufferers from hospitals where generators had failed. It treated 98 critically ill sufferers, eleven of whom died.

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The Comfort’s deployment was not the only federal healthcare initiative after Maria hit. Federal field hospitals, clinics and medical shelters saw a lot more than 30,000 patients, and a lot more than 1,400 uninsured people stuffed their prescriptions at pharmacies free of charge because of a federal reimbursement plan.


A mid-November visit to the ship found dozens of folks ready to see doctors in the tents create outside, but inside the majority of the beds were empty. Only a small number of patients were on board, and the majority of the doctors had been milling about.

But those who were consistently getting treatment appeared satisfied. Olga Quezada’s knee had swollen up as if someone had pumped air into it. She have been turned aside by her local hospital, and she concerned about the pain, the costs and finding care.

Ship doctors stuck a frighteningly long needle into her knee to drain the fluid, for free. “At first, I went to hospital in Bayamón, plus they told me to come back,” Ms. Quezada said. She added: “I really like the doctors here.”

The Comfort can be used on relief missions about every two years. It offered off the coast of Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm in 1990 and 1991 and presented aid during the rescue of Cuban and Haitian migrants in 1994. The Relaxation was deployed in Manhattan after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

In Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, the Relaxation provided much-needed surgical care, but communication with referring doctors and with family members was problematic. Some sufferers died during laborious, multistep transfers, plus some doctors experienced the ship remaining too soon.

Doctors found in Puerto Rico said the Relaxation could have been of enormous help directly after the storm, because initially many hospitals were damaged or shuttered.

Without air-conditioning, temperatures soared dangerously, and operating bedrooms were closed as generators failed. Er personnel sewed wounds, lanced boils and examined sufferers by the light of cellphones and flashlights. They lacked access to CT scans. In the 10 days after the Sept. 20 storm, the quantity of deaths in Puerto Rico jumped to an average of 118 a day, 36 a lot more than usual.


But the ship didn’t leave Virginia until Sept. 29, arriving in Puerto Rico on Oct. 3.

Problems quickly emerged. For starters, the Comfort lacked essential capacities, including the ability to treat premature infants and patients with common antibiotic-resistant infections, head trauma and strokes needing neurosurgery, or heart conditions needing bypass surgery. One doctor was observed complaining about receiving so-called “social cases”- sufferers who would be complicated to discharge because they misplaced their homes or lacked caregivers.

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When the ship docked in San Juan, residents were thrilled. “People saw the big, bright white ship and came working,” said Murad Raheem, a regional crisis coordinator for the Department of Health insurance and Human Companies who oversaw the federal government government’s overall health response to the disaster.

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The Comfort looked after 67 patients in its first two days, but wasn’t create to get unscreened patients, Mr. Raheem said.

Soon after the ship’s arrival, Puerto Rican and federal officials and community medical professionals met on the Relaxation. They determined the ship should move around the island to aid “wherever the needs had been at the time,” Mr. Raheem said.

However they agreed that doctors around the island would have to vet potential sufferer transfers through the Puerto Rico Medical Services Administration, the large and overburdened public hospital in San Juan that normally served as a referral middle. Only if a healthcare facility was total would a case be reviewed for likely referral to the Relaxation.

Patient circulation slowed to a trickle. In line with the Navy, only 137 sufferers were delivered over an interval of three weeks.

The first telephone numbers provided by the public hospital didn’t work, and others had to be established. Callers overwhelmed the cellphone of the crisis department director after his number was posted on Facebook.


In areas without functioning cellphones, property lines or satellite phones, and with sole ambulance radios to communicate, “referring affected individuals to the Relaxation was unattainable,” said Dr. Rene Purcell-Jordan, an emergency room medical professional in Yauco, in southwest Puerto Rico.

Dr. Purcell and different doctors said they also had little information about which kind of patients the Relaxation could or would deal with.

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Some problems were beyond the Comfort’s control. Poor weather grounded helicopters. Some localized hospital administrators had been reluctant to give up their patients, and oftentimes patients themselves wished to stay near residence, even when conditions at their hospitals came out dangerous.

Gov. Ricardo A. Rosselló petitioned for alterations. He said the ship’s roving objective was appropriate immediately after the storm when roads had been impassable, but that as period passed it made even more sense to allow seven hub hospitals to refer sufferers directly and finally for sufferers to refer themselves.

The Relaxation returned to the port in Good old San Juan. This time, federal Disaster MEDICAL ATTENTION Teams create in tents outside the ship, and thousands of people proceeded to go for prescriptions and care. Those who wanted something the tents cannot provide, like surgery or X-rays, were taken on to the ship.

“No one who walked up to the ship offers been denied care,” Captain Buckley said.

Officials at the public hospital defended the Comfort’s procedure.

“The Comfort was not a party boat,” said Dr. Carlos A. Gómez, the top of the hospital’s emergency room. “You need conditions to go to a hospital, whether it’s at ocean or on land.”

Still, the objective to the end remained murky. On Nov. 15 the Relaxation remaining the dock, with a spokesman saying the ship organized to restock at ocean and resume treating sufferers. On Nov. 17, the ship was ordered residence, once and for all, without warning.

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