Reporting from the USNS Comfort

Aimee Lyons instructs a mother on how to care for her baby after he leaves the Intensive Care Unit on the Comfort.
Aimee Lyons instructs a mother on how to care for her baby after he leaves the Intensive Care Unit on the Comfort.

by Aimee Lyons, RN, BSN, MSN

When I got the call from Project Hope to go to Haiti, I didn’t think twice. They called me on a Monday and the next day, Tuesday, I was on a plane, heading towards devastation unlike any I’d ever seen.

Although I have been a part of the Massachusetts National Disaster Team, I’d never actually been deployed to work in a disaster environment before. I only had my training and 20 plus years of critical care nursing experience to take with me.

DSCF7202I was deployed to work on the USNS Comfort, a Navy ship that travels around the world providing medical and surgical care to people in need. On the helicopter ride from Port-au-Prince to the ship, all of the earthquake’s wreckage became very clear. I flew over fires, crumbling houses, throngs of people on the streets and tent cities. I’d never witnessed anything like that before.

I was on the ship for three weeks and it felt like I was encapsulated in my own little world. The ship was like a small city that never slept. I’d never been on a ship for such a long period of time before where I could not leave.

I worked 18 straight shifts that were each 12 hours long and I mostly worked at night, 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. As a critical care nurse, I’ve seen a lot of trauma. But nothing I’ve done before can even come close to what I saw on that ship. I had to clean bricks and mortar out of children’s heads, eyes, mouths and body wounds. I assisted in amputations that would probably not have been necessary in the States.

Working in such a heightened emotional environment takes its toll. It was a hard environment to be in because everyday a few people died. When my patients died I knew it was sometimes because we didn’t have the medicine and technology on the ship that would’ve been available if they were in the States.

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Whether here at Children’s or on the ship, the hardest part of my job is watching mothers struggle with the death of their children. However, on the Comfort we could only offer them the technology that was available. The moms would ask for more to be done, but nothing else was possible. When the moms would ask me what they were to do now that their child had died, I was at a loss for words. I had witnessed what the earthquake had done to their homes and their country. It was heartbreaking to me to have to tell them  that not only would they have to leave the boat, the only shelter they had for the time being, but they’d have to do it without their child. Some chose to carry their dead children off the ship to go home with them as a family.

The wonderful thing I learned about the Haitian culture is that they are so family oriented. I had a sense of this here in the States, but being immersed in the culture really brought the message home. It was amazing to see how the families cared for each other while on the boat. I loved this. I loved that in caring for the child I was also caring for the family.

DSCF7167Of course, it was hard not to become attached to some of the patients I treated on the ship. I treated a 30-week old preemie twin who was separated from his mother and twin. The day before I was to transport the twin off the ship, his twin and mother were found. I was able to transport the entire family to another hospital and en route the mother asked me to take her children back to the States with me. She already has six other children and wanted a better life for them. As tempting as her offer was (I already have four children of my own and if you know me, I would have gladly taken two more), the translator had to tell the mom that I didn’t want to go to jail for kidnapping. The mom laughed when she heard that.

Working on the USNS Comfort was an extremely humbling experience. When I came home I wondered if I’d made any difference at all. The devastation there is just so huge and widespread. I know that some of the kids who survived will be okay, but there are others I worry about – those that are sent back to the street to live. Was it worth it for them and all of the effort to keep them alive just to go back and live with no food, no water and no home?

I would go back to Haiti in a heartbeat, but my children would prefer that I stay at home. Coming home and having plenty of food to eat and water to drink made me realize exactly what it is that I have and what Haiti doesn’t. Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the world and they’re devastated now.

Thinking back to my time on the USNS Comfort, I realize how amazing it was that so many strangers could come together in a time of disaster and work for the bigger goal.