Life-Saving Hospital Ship Returns from Hurricane Relief

The hospital ship USNS Comfort arrives in San Juan, Puerto Rico Oct. 3 to provide medical assistance for victims of Hurricane Maria. (US Navy photo/Ernest Scott)
The hospital ship USNS Comfort arrives in San Juan, Puerto Rico Oct. 3 to provide medical assistance for victims of Hurricane Maria. (US Navy photo/Ernest Scott)

The Military Sealift Command hospital ship USNS Comfort has ended its nearly two-month medical assistance mission in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria, and has returned to homeport at Naval Station Norfolk, Virginia.

In a statement Friday, the Navy said the Comfort, which left Norfolk on Sept. 29 and arrived off Puerto Rico on Oct. 4, had treated 1,899 patients, performed 191 surgeries, provided 76,000 liters of oxygen and 10 tons of food and water.

The surgeries included 44 general surgical procedures such as hernia repair, gallbladder removal and appendix removal; 25 major orthopedic surgical cases; 17 amputations and 15 urological procedures.

One of the life-saving surgeries involved the open repair of a ruptured aortic aneurysm, which was the most complex surgery ever performed on a hospital ship, the Navy said.

In addition, the Comfort staff delivered two babies. The first was a baby girl, Sara Victoria Llull Rodriguiz, born on Oct. 14. The second was a baby boy, Isaias Valerio-Fonseca, born on Nov. 3. His father is a Navy veteran, according to a Navy statement.

"The ship's namesake Comfort was absolutely appropriate for what the crew was able to do, because we weren't just there to provide medical treatment, we were there for the comfort to the patient's families," said Capt. Kevin Robinson, the Comfort's mission commander.

"We made every effort to bring family member escorts aboard to provide comfort to the patients as well as the family," Robinson said.

Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, knocking out power to the island's 3.4 million U.S. citizen residents and more than 60 hospitals, and devastating water systems.

Following complaints from local officials, and some in Congress, on the adequacy of the initial relief effort, the Comfort was hurriedly ordered to leave Norfolk and proceed to the island.

"When we first got there, there was no electricity and everything was dark. We were a bright beacon that had power," said Capt. Roger Gwinn, USNS Comfort's master, said in a Navy release.

"We met people that hadn't showered in 8-9 days, hadn't had a hot meal in the same amount of time, and that made the crew realize what we were dealing with," Gwinn said.

The return of the Comfort to Norfolk followed on the departures from the area of the amphibious assaults ships Wasp and Kearsarge, and the transport dock Oak Hill, as the military was winding down the relief effort and turning the main recovery work over to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Last week, Army Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan, who had been in charge of the military's efforts on the island, returned to his command at U.S. Army North.

"I think we're in the right place to transition" the recovery from the military to Puerto Rican authorities and FEMA, Buchanan said. "We're out of the emergency phase, but people still need help."

As of last week, the official death toll on Puerto Rico from Hurricane Marie stood at 55, but local officials fear that the count will rise as the recovery work continues.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at


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