(Click here to read Part 1 - Killick Coast Guard base).
I arrived at the base on Tuesday with my overnight bag and when our work day was over, I climbed onto the transport boat with all the navy doctors and staff. Commander Taylor, the site leader, had pulled the necessary strings to get me cleared to come aboard for a few nights. I was prepared to help out in the operating rooms and the wards wherever they needed a Creole speaking nurse.
However, when we docked alongside the immense ship and the HM checking me in asked what my role was, the doctor escorting me said, "She is here as our guest!" I was led around the ship, given a bunk, taken to dinner, ordered to take a "Hollywood" shower, and greeted with big smiles. Walking around the Comfort was surreal. Here I was anchored 15 minutes off the shore of Haiti, but I was surrounded by nearly 1000 Americans. There were things like water fountains and soda machines, trash cans and exercise bikes. It was reverse culture shock a few weeks early.
Things got really wild at the evening debrief. I walked in, past rows and rows of men and women in uniform and found a place to hide in the back. Across the room, a doctor that I vaguely recognized noticed me and gave me a big grin and a nodded "Hello". I smiled back. Halfway through the meeting, that same doctor appeared beside me holding 2 ice cream cones: "Vanilla or chocolate?" I checked the name tag and realized that he was Commander Donahue, looking rather different in scrubs and a white jacket instead of fatigues and a navy cap. A second glance at the name tag gave me a little shock. Donahue is the director of surgery on the USNS Comfort. The man that I yelled at, insisting that he do something about the rioting at the gates, is one of the 4 most powerful men on the ship! Yikes!
Obviously my forwardness had not upset Donahue. For the next 3 hours, he was my very gracious host. He took me to the meetings I needed to attend. He introduced me to everyone we encountered. He smuggled peanut butter into my bags. He gave me a the grand tour of the restricted sections of the hospital ship. He took me downstairs to visit my friend and her son who were awaiting surgery in the pre-op ward. He explained some of the mysteries of navy-speak and asked me a million questions about living in Haiti. He offered me ice cold diet Coke more times than I can count. The director of surgery on a 1000 patient hospital ship spending 3 hours with Kez Furth, first year nurse, unofficial volunteer with the Comfort - it was crazy.
As Donahue was showing me around, we met Captain Ware, the Commanding Officer, the number one man on the ship. Donahue introduced me, then he and Ware launched into a discussion about how important it was to work with local contacts like me. He insisted over and over that I stay in touch with Donahue and Safford, the future director of surgery. It all boiled down to this simple fact: Ware wants me to be closely involved with the planning and execution of Comfort's return visit to Haiti in 2011.
Over the next 2 days, it was the same story. Everywhere I went on the ship, I was treated like a VIP by Donahue, by all his staff, by all the doctors I'd worked with on the base, and by my everyone I met. From my point of view, I would have been happy to just not get kicked off the base after my rather deceitful entrance, but for some reason, the ship's crew had decided I was something special and they wanted me to know it. I even received an official certificate of appreciation before I left the ship.
I loved being on board the Comfort. I had the best shower I've had in 9 months. I made friends with volunteer nurses from Project Hope, the chaplain, the Air Force band, and lots of doctors. I ate amazing BBQ ribs. I got to experience some spectacular views of Haiti and watch the sun rise over Port-au-Prince. Whenever I wanted, I could pop into pre-op holding to hang out with Shawn and Victor or to argue with Tom about the Yankees. I was taken onto the flight deck, the highest point on the ship, in the early evening to just stand there and feel the wind and exhilaration of being on top of the world. There was so much to discover and so many people to meet.
One evening, I was sitting in the mess hall, talking with Eric, a wonderful dermatologist who happened to also be a Christian. I was so blessed to meet him - now I finally have someone I can email whenever I am stumped with a strange derm case. Eric was asking me what things I really miss while I'm living in Haiti and I mentioned real fresh milk. "What? We have milk right here," Eric told me. I grabbed a glass but the milk machine was empty. I was so disappointed. "Hold on," Eric said, taking my cup and disappearing into the commander's mess hall. A minute later, he reappeared with a glass full of milk, frothy creamy chilled milk. It was heaven in a glass!
Thursday was my last day on board the Comfort and I left with a slew of emails and requests to stay in touch. My friends in pre-op tried to convince to cancel my weekend plans and stay till Sunday. They finally gave in and hugged me good-bye. Donahue tried once more to get me to drink a diet Coke and then hugged me. I thanked him for treating me like a queen during my stay and he just smiled. "You are a queen, Kez."
I am so grateful for everything that the crew on USNS Comfort did for the people of Haiti and for the amazing way that they treated me. I was impressed over and over by how respectful and truly caring they were to their patients and by how open they were to experience new things. I learned and I taught, I gave and I received, I exhausted myself and was thoroughly refreshed. If I do end up coordinating the Comfort's return in 2011, I know it will be a lot of work, but I am very excited for it. What a week!