Floating Hospital Brings Relief to Haiti

Yvelot Brianville, 24, lies quietly on a steel hospital gurney, a boyish naval officer in blue combat fatigues standing by his side.

The officer, Lt. Cmdr. Mill Etienne, 34, is Haitian, fluent in Creole. He is also a neurologist, called to the intensive-care ward of this floating U.S. Navy hospital just off the coast of Port-au-Prince to assess the impact of Haiti's earthquake on one man's spine.

He finds that Brianville is paralyzed from the chest down. When Etienne gently breaks the news, Brianville begins to cry.

"That's hard news for anybody," says Lt. Robyn Reynolds, a nurse, coming to console him.

Haiti's hard news keeps coming. Patients board the hospital ship every day. More than six days into the Comfort's mission here, more than 450 patients are on board — people who were crushed under rubble, who are sick with infections and nursing diseases made worse by neglect.

The death toll has reached 150,000, according to the Haitian government, and as many as 700,000 Haitians may have suffered traumatic injuries because of Jan. 12's earthquake. Tens of thousands are still untreated. Their odds of survival grow if they reach the Comfort.

"We can't save everyone, but we're trying to save as many as we can," Etienne says. "Haiti's going to be rebuilt. It really is. And some of these people are going to help rebuild it."

The Navy presence in Haiti is hard to miss. For many of those living in the rubble of Port-au-Prince, the sight of the Comfort is a promise of hope anchored a mile out in the bay.

At about 70,000 tons, it is bigger than the Navy's biggest battleship, just 100 feet shorter than a typical aircraft carrier. It is painted white and emblazoned on all sides with the Red Cross. Machine gunners stand watch on deck. A small flotilla of frigates and other vessels provides security.

It is the flagship of an unprecedented U.S. humanitarian mission — Operation Unified Response-Haiti — that includes more than 13,000 troops, the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson and the amphibious troopship USS Bataan, says Capt. Jim Ware, the ship's commanding officer.

The Navy also has identified a 100-acre plot near Port-au-Prince to establish a hospital for patients with less severe injuries that can be treated on shore, he says.

A Native Son, Back Home

Etienne has been on active duty in the Navy just six months. But since he boarded the Comfort, which set out from Baltimore Jan. 15, he has become a confidant and emissary of the commanding officer.

He has helped create a phonetic medical phrase book so doctors can ask their patients simple questions in Creole. He also has been named chairman of the ship's medical ethics committee.

"When he came aboard he was a neurologist with a special interest in ethics and cultural awareness," Ware says. "He's become a trusted adviser and representative for the U.S. Navy."

A native of Haiti, he left the island just a few days before his sixth birthday, when his family fled the bloody regime of Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier in 1981.

The 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center prompted Etienne to join the Navy. The son of a cabdriver and a nurse's aide from Spring Valley, N.Y., he enlisted during his fourth year of medical school. Mostly free of debt thanks to scholarships and grants, he decided to give something back. He's assigned to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.

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