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Military Medicine In Haiti

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, Jan. 22, 2010 - Medics don't just slap patients on operating tables and begin cutting.

Patients need tests to determine blood types, allergic reactions and drug sensitivities. They need X-rays and CT scans so doctors can see what damage there might be. Doctors also need to know what germs may be present, and patients need medications and test kits for specific conditions.

All these different orders go to the department of ancillary services aboard the hospital ship USNS Comfort, deployed here for the Haiti earthquake relief effort. Anclillary services include the lab, the pharmacy, radiology and physical therapy.

The officers and corpsmen who staff the lab are as crucial to patients as anyone aboard the ship, but they are never seen. When they first see patients in casualty receiving, doctors make educated guesses about the diagnosis and order tests to confirm those educated guesses. "We're the ones who put the science in the diagnosis," said Navy Lt. (j.g.) Natalie Oakes from Naval Medical Center Portsmouth, Va., who runs the Comfort's laboratory section.

The ship has a full suite of equipment. "We're capable of providing the same service as we would upon shore," Oakes said. "Our only limit is supply." A Military Sealift Command ship arrived here today with supplies for the lab and the rest of the departments aboard the Comfort.

Some of the analyzer machines are down, and the Navy is flying in specialists to fix them. Still, the lab techs have found workarounds for the time being. The major loss is that of the CT scan. The manufacturer is sending a repair technician who should arrive today or tomorrow.

The main tests run are complete blood counts, the basic metabolic panel -- which gives the levels of electrolytes plus glucose -- and a lot of blood bank tests for cross-matching and transfusions, Oates said. The lab also does testing for sexually transmitted diseases, HIV, urinalysis and a lot of microbiology. "We can culture different bodily fluids for infections, including blood," she said.

The lab has 20 lab techs. A regular 250-bed hospital would have more than 50. The Comfort may fill 1,000 beds.

"We're managing," Oates said. "Being creative in a situation like this may save a life. We're just pulling things out as we go along to help these people."

Everyone has a real sense of mission, Oakes said.

"I miss my family like everyone else here, but I'm here for a mission," she said. "We're here to help."

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