Tuesday, June 2, 2009
Homestead Air Force Base to Panama
Woke up at 6am to buzzing alarm and freezing room (darn thermostat was broken). Look outside and everyone is up and at ‘em and in their uniforms. I dig through my sea bag and pull out my camouflage uniform and steel-toed boots. When I put on the “utes and boots” I am instantly taken back to where I was a year earlier in Southeast Asia, with my dive team. Operational. Feels good to be back in the saddle again.
There’s a thing in the military called “hurry up and wait”. It’s let’s go, let’s go, let’s go! And then when you get there you sit around waiting for the next step of the evolution. That would be the theme of the day. You just have to be patient. Semper Gumby as they say. Max Flex.
Our group mustered (gathered) at 0730 outside the lodge and boy were we a hodgepodge- docs, dentists, public health service, social workers, medical students, pre-meds, and engineers. Most of he folks are Navy Reservists from all over the United States. I am thrilled to get to know these talented and service-minded individuals. Everyone is teeming with excitement to get to Panama. First we had to weigh-in – literally getting on a big scale with our backpacks and combat boots. I came in just under 2 bills. Whew. The next announcement came that we would have no food or water until reaching Panama. This gave me instant concern and I pulled the Chief aside and told him to go to the quicky mart right now and get three cases of water. Yes sir. Yes, that’s what I’m talking about. That’s the last thing we want to be- dehydrated on arrival.
Finally after a few more hours of waiting we are hydrated and enter the tarmac. So fascinating how relaxed the rules are when you’re flying military air. The aircrew mention they need some strong hands to load bags, so a Public Health Service optomotrist and I roger up. We don the gloves and earplugs and start the conveyer belt and climbed up in the belly of the plane loading sea bags. It was fun.
The plane is a Boeing 737 like any other commercial jet, but says U.S. Navy on it. Pretty cool. The pilots (decked out in flight suits) are Navy Reservists (Bo flies for JetBlue, and the other for American) and the aircrew are active duty out of Jacksonville. Really nice people. It is at this point that I am regretting not eating breakfast. After we are airborne, I strike up a conversation with the Aircrew Chief in Spanish about her hometown in Dominican Republic. Through and through I come to find out that she likes to cocinar and has some food stashed away. Gracias Dios. Blueberries and Chicken with Green Beans.
The coolest part of the flight was the ability to go into the cockpit. One can’t do that very often since 9/11, especially in a 737. The pilots explained the automatic pilot features, told me about the charted course, and took some photos. On approach to Tocumel International airport in Panama we could see dozens of cargo ships below between the haze of clouds and thunderstorms. Safe landing and again we exit and are made to offload our bags from the belly of the aircraft. By this point it is raining cats and dogs, but we don’t mind. It actually feels nice against the thick humidity. We hear noise coming from the Terminal. It is the Reservist crew that we are there relieving and they welcome us with cheers, high fives and flag waving. I can’t tell if it is a welcome or they are just excited because they are going home. Probably a bit of both.
We load onto buses that take us on about an hour and a half drive from the airport to Colon where the Hospital Ship is docked. The ride is a bit cramped, but everyone is in good spirits and talkative. I strike up a conversation with a guy named Joe from Missouri. Joe is in fighting shape and with a sharp jaw and quiet way about him he stands out as an intelligent and thoughtful young lad. The Harvard Medical School shirt he was wearing didn’t give it away though J After talking with him for some time about Health Care Reform, Russian viewpoints of the U.S., and the current quagmire in the Korean peninsula, this guy has his stuff together. I ask his age- 22 years old. Tried to remember where I was at 22 and if I was anywhere close to the wisdom this guy had.
When we arrive at the port terminal the mighty USNS COMFORT comes into view for the first time through the mist of pouring rain. Sporting its big red cross on the port bow, the converted oil tanker now hospital ship is a truly massive- 1000 bed patient capacity, operating rooms, Intensive Care Unit, and so much more. It is truly a beacon of hope and humanitarian aid throughout the Americas. Proudly we board, salute the American flag, and are welcomed by the crew of close to a thousand people already aboard. First stop- the mess decks (chow).
Surf and Turf is the meal this evening. Something tells me that these frozen lobster tails (not so bad with some Tabasco sauce) are not something to get used to for supper. Perhaps it was the Joint Staff Surgeon and Deputy Undersecretary for Health Affairs making a special visit today that prompted such cuisine. In the food line I see my office mate from back in D.C.- LT Marcy Morlock. A familiar face in the crowd and lovely lady. She’s been on board already for two months, and just gives me a smirk and “Welcome to the Sauna”. I also run into my Duke classmate (now Infectious Disease physician LCDR Todd Gleeson. Gleeson was my platoon commander at Duke, and taught me much back then. A Johns Hopkins medical school grad, Todd is sharp, cunning, funny, and an incredible athlete. Since Duke he has gotten married, and has three children. Very pleasant surprise to see him.
After chow we are inprocessed (lot of paperwork), and I am taken to my officer berthing and rack (bed). There are five of us in a stateroom of sorts, with lockers outside and the bunks in the back. My roommates are the head of IT for the ship LT Sean Kelley, LCDR Vic Diaz a nurse anesthetist, LCDR Dave Bacon a microbiologist (and spin instructor), Canadian male Nurse (murse) LCDR Dave McClean, and LT Mike Berretti a Navy Internal Medicine doc.
I go on exploring mission to find the gyms and other nooks and crannies of the ship. Over the 1MC (the intercom) there is a call for mandatory briefing for next day’s events and talk by the Admiral and the DUSHA. Interesting speeches by both, and even more impressive questions about the future of humanitarian assistance missions for the United States Military. Bottom line- it shall continue and is becoming a discipline, a specialty, all in of itself. We need to have training programs for medical diplomacy and continue to integrate and partner with the State Department, the Dept. of HHS, and NGOs.
During the speeches I see my good friend CDR Dave Hartzell (Navy dentist) dozing off. He looks exhausted and so I got him a cup of Joe, and a punch to wake up. CDR Harzell is the head of the Dental Team aboard USNS COMFORT. He is married to a Navy dentist as well. Once the brief is finished Dr. Harzell shows me the Dental Treatment spaces and technology aboard COMFORT. Extremely impressive ability by a machine to take a 3-D image of a tooth and send that information instantly to a machine that will construct a crown to the perfect size and shape for insertion. Wow!
It’s been a long day, and there will be many more to come. Tomorrow morning I meet with the Medical Services Team led by pediatrician CAPT Anderson. It’s the final two days of treatment occurring in Panama. So far over 15000 patients seen. T minus 2 days until we cross the Panama Canal!