As he stood on a Baltimore dock in a glorious March sun, U.S. Navy Cmdr. Tim Donahue remembered the Haitians. The 44 patients with spinal-cord injuries, two of whom broke their necks. The 23-year-old woman who underwent 14 surgeries in 38 days to save her leg. The 16 adults and 13 children who were too sick or injured to be saved. Minutes earlier, Donahue had disembarked from the USNS Comfort, the massive and gleaming white hospital ship that pulled into its home port last week, two months after departing for its medical mission to Haiti. Donahue, theComfort’s director of surgery, and his colleagues treated some 1,000 men, women, and children injured in the 7.0 earthquake that decimated Port-au-Prince and surrounding areas. They rescued lives, they reunited parents and children, they brought hope to the sickest patients. “It was probably the most rewarding thing I’ve done in the Navy,” he said.
It is the best kind of military mission. For two months, Navy and civilian doctors and nurses slept in racks, toiled in the belly of the vessel even as aftershocks shook the ship, and endured the emotional stress of treating battered patients. In the early days of the mission, I interviewed Capt. Michael C. Radoiu, a physician on board, who told me that “seeing young children in pain, and often horrid pain, has been my toughest challenge.” Radoiu has traveled around the world, but “I have never seen anything like the Haiti earthquake,” he said. The ups and downs were stark: the teamwork was great, Donahue told me, but the agony of what the Haitians had endured was incredibly sad. “I found nurses crying at the end of the day,” he said.
On March 19, the welcome-home scene in Baltimore was all about celebration. Dozens of local schoolkids waited hours to greet the and its staff. A team from Dunkin' Donuts handed out free doughnuts, bagels, and juice to keep everybody energized.
The kids carried homemade signs (a bright pink one read: “Haiti Loves You! We do too!!!”); they waved and cheered. As crew members disembarked, students gave them certificates that read, “Your work on behalf of the earthquake victims in Haiti exemplifies the spirit of America, and we are all proud of you.”
Lt. Michel Santana and Lt. Evan Toatley stood on the dock after disembarking with their gear and big smiles. As Comfort docs and nurses cared for patients during the trip to Haiti, Santana and Toatley kept the ship’s store, laundry room, and barbershop running. Most important, they made sure everybody got fed. Favorite morale-boosting meal: steak and crab legs. Most popular dessert: ice cream. “It starts riots,” said Toatley.
Haiti has faded from many an American memory, but its people still need help. The Comfort’s “Operation Unified Response” mission ended because the gravest injuries had been treated and it was no longer practical to helicopter patients out to the ship for care. But when I asked Donahue if he, personally, was ready to leave, he didn’t hesitate: “Of course, I’m a doctor. I would have loved to stay longer.”