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Haiti Loses Its U.S. Lifeboat

The U.S.S. Comfort, the symbol of U.S. humanitarian aid and generosity, left Haiti last week. The U.S. military has judged that its relief mission has been completed.

The U.S. Navy's vast hospital ship, the Comfort, departed Haiti Wednesday and is due back to its home port of Baltimore this weekend. In the harbor off of Port-au-Prince, its gleaming white topsides accented with red crosses have been a conspicuous symbol of U.S. generosity since the country's devastating earthquake.

But for 11 days before it departed, as some hospitals on the ground in Haiti overflowed with patients, no inpatients with earthquake injuries were treated onboard. Instead, the Comfort's personnel engaged Monday in an "abandon ship drill," and its overhead paging system has recently heralded the visits of a host of dignitaries, including the secretary of the Navy, who came to congratulate the crew.

As the staff awaited direction, debate brewed over whether it was an appropriate time to leave -- as many American and Haitian officials believed -- or whether the unique capacities of the ship should continue to be used to save lives beyond treating acute earthquake injuries, as some health professionals urged.

Not long after the earthquake, the hospital offered services that are scarce in Haiti, including CT scans, intensive care and advanced surgery in sterile conditions. Over a period of around six weeks beginning Jan. 19, staff members performed more than 800 surgeries and treated close to 900 patients, many of them severely injured, according to military public-affairs officers. The care the ship provided drew kudos from Haitians and civilian aid workers.

But last month the Comfort stopped taking admissions and began the careful and painstaking work of transferring its remaining patients to other facilities, according to military officers on board and doctors who received the Comfort's patients. On Feb. 24, workers mopped the near-empty wards and waited for word on the ship's deployment status. One of the last of the two dozen inpatients -- a tearful woman with an injured right leg -- was lifted into a helicopter on the way to a field hospital set up by Harvard physicians near Haiti's border with the Dominican Republic.

The decision to release the ship from service in Haiti was made by the U.S. Southern Command, which judged its humanitarian relief mission to be completed, according to a press release issued this week. That mission was defined mainly as treating critically injured earthquake survivors and international responders. By contrast, a similar hospital ship, the USNS Mercy, responding to the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, had only just arrived on the scene at a similar time point as when the Comfort began drawing down its operations. The Mercy then stayed in Indonesia for five and a half weeks.

All land-based field hospitals and clinics operated by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which provided surgery, wound care and childbirth services, have also closed in recent days. "The medical mission here in Haiti is converted," said Capt. Jim Imholte, who served as the head of the HHS mission in Haiti. Acute surgical needs, he said, were giving way to needs for rehabilitation and primary care. "It's a natural transition point for us back to the Haitian government and the medical institutions that are here and the [non-governmental organizations] that are here that have the skill sets perhaps in that area that we don't necessarily have."

One HHS field hospital was converted into an outpatient clinic run by a small charity. There, steps away from a soccer field filled with thousands of the dispossessed living under sheets and tarps, a curling piece of paper affixed to a wall announced the change in services in Haitian Creole: "We don't deliver babies. We don't do operations. We don't take people with gunshot wounds. We don't take people with serious injuries." Where patients could go to get those services was unclear.

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