Navy Capt. Jeff Georgia was exultant this afternoon as technicians installing angiogram equipment aboard the Navy hospital ship Comfort put the final touches on the X-ray device that allows doctors to see patients' blood vessels.
"It's the most fun you can have with your clothes on," Georgia joked, looking at a screen displaying a tangled string of arteries and vessels.
The real value, the Navy doctor added, will be measured in lives. The equipment will allow surgeons treating soldiers with gunshot wounds or other severe trauma to stop internal bleeding without surgery. "It's going to save patients who before would have died," Georgia said.
The USNS Comfort is the first ship ever equipped with this capability, according to Georgia, and its installation -- hurriedly accomplished over the last several days -- is timely. The hospital ship is expected to embark from Baltimore early next week as the United States builds up military forces in the Persian Gulf region for a possible attack against Iraq.
The Comfort will carry a crew of 300 bound for Diego Garcia, a British island in the Indian Ocean. Once in the region -- a journey that will take about three weeks -- the crew probably will be augmented by as many as 900 medical personnel who fly out, depending on how many of the ship's beds are to be set up. The medical crew is drawn largely from the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda.
The white, 894-foot ship, a converted supertanker now emblazoned with huge red crosses, ranks among the largest trauma facilities in the nation. The vessel has 12 fully equiped operating rooms and can accommodate up to 1,000 hospital beds. A flight deck is available for helicopters carrying wounded troops and includes decontamination stations where soldiers or Marines exposed to chemical or biological weapons can be immediately treated.
On the Comfort's decks today, sailors were rushing with last-minute preparations, readying it for its primary mission: treating, if need be, hundreds or even thousands of American casualties.
"With what's coming up, we have to be ready to deal with it -- especially if there are any mass casualty scenarios or chemical attacks," said Cmdr. Terrence Dwyer, head of medical services for the ship.
In a cold and foggy drizzle, two cranes slung load after load of supplies onto the ship's flight deck. Sailors on the deck used forklifts to move cartons of syringes, drugs and other medical supplies, including at least one box from Drugstore.com. Food items were also being loaded, among them 16 cases of Snapple fruit juice.
"It's a little bit of everything," said Petty Officer 1st Class John Lafferty, 34, who was supervising the operation. Crews have been working 18 hours a day for the last week loading the ship, he said.
Among the critical items the crew is stocking is atropine, an antidote for nerve gas. "We're making sure we have all the inventory for chemical, biological or nuclear attack," Dwyer said.
One of the last items to be loaded, shortly before departure, will be 2,000 units of fresh blood.
The Comfort is capable of accepting as many as 300 casualties in one day, with 200 more the following day and 100 more on subsequent days. "We always train to the worst-case scenario," said Capt. Charles Blankenship, commanding officer of the ship's medical treatment facility.
Vaccinations for anthrax are being administered to crew members. Smallpox vaccinations, which will be given when the ship is at sea, will be administered in a phased sequence, to keep the entire crew from suffering reactions to the vaccine at the same time.
The Comfort, which was delivered to the Navy in 1987 and is one of the service's two hospital ships, was deployed for the Persian Gulf War. U.S. combat casualties were light, but the crew nonetheless treated more than 8,000 patients during the eight months the ship was deployed.
The Comfort's last unplanned activation came on the afternoon of Sept. 11, 2001, in response to the terrorist attacks. The ship departed for New York the next day, with the intention of serving as a hospital for World Trade Center victims. With few survivors to treat, the ship instead supported disaster workers.
For this deployment, the Navy will have to call up reservists to replace doctors, nurses and other medical personnel who normally serve at Bethesda. Many of the reservists work at area hospitals or in private practice.
The deployment has not caused the same shock to the crew as did the departure for the Gulf War, shortly after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in August 1990. "In '90-'91, that caught everybody by surprise," said Blankenship, who served then as a surgeon aboard the ship.
Nonetheless, the pending deployment is not easy for many of the families.
Lafferty said his 11-year-old son is nervous about it. "He's afraid Daddy's going to get killed," said Lafferty, who lives at Naval Station Annapolis. "I've sat down with him a couple of times to tell him that's not very likely."
On Thursday, Navy officials held deployment briefings at the Bethesda hospital for family members, offering advice on how to handle emergencies, legal issues, taxes, vehicles, banks and budgets while fathers or mothers are away.
Petty Officer 3rd Class Christopher Mauk and his wife, Heather, attended along with their 2-month-old twins, Cole and Kyle, sleeping in a double stroller.
"I don't like the fact they may not know who their father is when I come back," said Mauk, a Navy corpsman who lives with his family at Andrews Air Force Base.
"I really wish this wasn't happening," Heather Mauk said. "We've done sea time before, but I've never done sea time with twins."
Officials tried to reassure worried family members that the ship's crew will be safe.
"We have the talent, knowledge and experience to deal with whatever threats are out there," Capt. Michael Krentz, deputy commander of the Bethesda facility, told the audience.