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Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Providing 'Comfort'

In the aftermath of the January 12 earthquake that devastated Haiti, the United States Navy was among the first to respond with humanitarian aid. Leading the way was the hospital ship, the USNS Comfort, and in command of the Comfort was an Emory alumnus, CAPT James Ware 76Ox 78C.

Ware visited the Emory Conference Center and Hotel Tuesday morning as the keynote speaker for "Disaster Response Utilizing Academic Institutional Resources," a symposium dedicated to demonstrating the symbiotic relationship between academic and public health institutions regarding emergency response and preparedness. The conference, which concludes tomorrow, is presented by Emory's Southeastern Center for Emerging Biologic Threats (SECEBT), and three other entities.

Ware's personal story of his and his staff's experience in Haiti put a compelling human face on what was a necessarily clinical agenda.

"The emotional aspect in these times is as important as the academic aspect," said Ware of his crew's approach to their work in Haiti. The Comfort arrived in Port-au-Prince less than a week after the quake, although the ship had already seen its first patients--the most critical ones had been airlifted onto the ship while it was still at sea.

In other words, the "care" part of health care was just as crucial to saving earthquake victims' lives as medical skills of the Comfort's doctors.

As he spoke, Ware flashed though more than 100 slides highlighting the Comfort's staff (more than 1,200 doctors nurses and other personnel, both military and civilian) what they accomplished under remarkably stressful conditions (834 major surgeries, conducted in the 10 weeks docked in Haiti's capital city), and even some interesting trivia (162,000 pairs of gloves were used in the first 30 days).

In many ways, Ware and the Comfort were ideally suited for the Haiti mission. In 2009, the ship and its commander took part in "Continuing Promise" a humanitarian medical mission that visited more than a half dozen nations in Central and South America and the Caribbean. One of those was Haiti, and during that time Ware became acquainted with Haiti's Minister of Health Alex Larsen.

Larsen was the leader of Haiti's domestic relief efforts and Ware learned early on that assisting him would save more lives more quickly. "I saw myself working for the minister of health," Ware said. "And I told my staff of 1,200 that you work for the minister of health, too."

In his 50 minute address, Ware deftly translated his team's complicated mission for his audience and outlined its many successes without bragging. He also provided advice directly related to the conference's theme of disaster preparedness: have a plan in place to identify an optimal medical package for earthquake victims.

You'll never know how many people you'll need, he said, noting that the Comfort was chronically short on nurses the entire time. It also needed more pediatric kits ... 35 percent of the Comfort's patients were children. As a combat hospital, the ship wasn't set up for that kind of volume.

A native of Savannah, Ware graduated from Oxford in 1976, then earned his bachelor's in biology from Emory College in 1978. In 1983, one year after receiving his doctor of dental medicine degree from the Medical College of Georgia, Ware entered the service.

His assignments have ranged from peacekeeping missions in Lebanon and other international assignments in Japan and Kuwait to stateside tours stretching from Florida to Maryland to Texas. In June 2008 he was named commanding officer of the USNS Comfort. Including its mission in Haiti, the Comfort has treated well over 100,000 patients and completed more than 2,600 surgical operations.

Ware has earned a Bronze Star, Navy Meritorious Service Medal, and many other commendations.

-- Eric Rangus, director of communications, EAA

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