Coast Guard cutter delivers medical supplies, help; 'we saved a lot of lives'

This gallery collects all of our photos of the crisis in Haiti, starting with the most recent images and going back to the first photos that emerged after an earthquake hit the impoverished nation Jan. 12.
By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 15, 2010; 8:26 AM

There was no time to keep track of how many young patients had been seen Thursday at a U.S.-built medical clinic at a Haitian coast guard station in Killick, 10 miles outside of Port-au-Prince.

At first 10 children came, then 20, then 50. Finally, more than young 100 earthquake victims crowded into the clinic, where crew members of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Tahoma were delivering desperately needed medical supplies and assistance late into the night.

"It was one of those days where we didn't keep count. We treated a bunch of kids. We saved a lot of lives," said Cmdr. Jim Spotts, commanding officer of the Tahoma, weary but still working with his crew at 9:15 p.m. But, he added, "a lot of older people had to wait."

Some diagnoses had familiar-sounding names, Spotts recounted: deep lacerations, for instance, and injuries likely to require amputation. Others were referred to by crude shorthand. "De-scalping" victims were those whose skin had been peeled back from their scalps by falling bricks or other masonry. "Crushing disease" meant a syndrome caused when tissue damaged in trapped limbs produces blood toxins, leading to kidney failure.

Nicknamed "The Mighty T," the Tahoma has seen its share of tragedy. The 170-foot cutter, commissioned in 1988, was the first major U.S. military asset on the scene after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the World Trade Center towers in New York. This week, with its sister cutters Forward and Mohawk, the Tahoma was again among the first U.S. vessels on station off Port-au-Prince. The cutter came from the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, about 200 miles to the east, to provide port damage assessments, air-traffic control and medical relief missions to the slowly mushrooming international relief effort.

Before heading for Haiti, Tahoma's crew "grabbed as much as we could get," Spotts said. "Everything from painkillers and Band-Aids to sutures, gauze, blankets -- anything we could get our hands on for first aid to help treat trauma victims until they could get professional help."

About 20 of the Tahoma's 100 crew members brought the supplies ashore and stayed to help treat survivors.

Spotts, a 1992 graduate of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, brings his own expertise on Haiti. A former Coast Guard intelligence manager who has worked both the northeast and southeast marine borders near Canada and the Caribbean, Spotts from July 2008 until last May served as military liaison to Haiti at the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince -- contributing to largest previous relief operations in the region, after four hurricanes smashed Haiti in 2008.

Tuesday's earthquake, Spotts said, left his former colleagues reeling. At Haiti's century-old former Admiral Killick naval base, now a Coast Guard station that houses a Sri Lankan battalion and a Uruguayan maritime police unit that are part of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti, "only two or three structures" are left standing, Spotts said.

"You see buildings where literally the roof has collapsed, and all four walls are spread apart like in a comic book, as if the Road Runner dropped Wile E. Coyote on them," he said.

"It's been hard," Spotts said. "Obviously we need medical supplies . . . then food and water, and essentially the rebuilding of the entire city of Port-au-Prince," Spotts said.

Spotts praised the Haitians he knew from his past assignments as resilient, dedicated and possessing a fatalistic humor that had seen them through dark times.

This week, Spotts said, everybody he saw seemed to have lost the ability to laugh.

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