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Iraq Journals

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Friday, April 4

The USNS Comfort, stationed in the Persian Gulf, left its home port of Baltimore, Md., in January. The majority of the ships crew come from the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. (Nursing Spectrum photo)

Drills prepare ship's team for decontamination needs

By Janet Boivin | The Nursing Spectrum

ABOARD THE USNS COMFORT, Persian Gulf - As officer in charge of the ship's chemical patient decontamination team, Ensign Gary Hardy trains with his team members daily, recognizing that as U.S. and coalition soldiers move closer to Baghdad, the threat of Saddam Hussein's use of weapons of mass destruction grows.

Training has taken on new meaning for the 38 members of the decontamination team since the war against Iraq began. "When you train during peacetime, you take it seriously, of course,'' says Hardy. "But now we're thinking about our soldiers who are actually on the ground.''

The process for chemical decontamination is simple. Patients arrive by helicopter and are carried on litters to a yellow line on the flight desk. Their gear and weapons are removed, the chemical agent identified, if possible, and any physical injuries assessed. Their clothing is washed down with diluted bleach.

Only the lifesaving ABCs are provided until patients are decontaminated. "Decontamination comes first,'' says Hardy, who is a neonatal ICU nurse back at National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. "What injuries we can take care of we do, but our job is to get them to the triage area chemical-free.''

Patients are then brought through the decontamination station entrance into the "skin'' room, where the rest of their clothing and any bandages are removed, except for a chemical mask. Wounds are rinsed in water.

Patients are washed down with diluted bleach for at least 10 minutes. Then they are brought to a second room where chemical monitoring agents are used to detect contamination. If an agent is detected, patients are again washed with the bleach solution and monitored once more. When no agents are detected, patients go into a triage area where medical assessment and treatment begin.

The process itself isn't difficult. Thoroughness, not speed, is the priority. The challenge for team members is performing the decontamination while wearing decon suits to protect themselves from poisoning. Called JLIST, short for joint service light integrated suit technology, the suits are the best protection the military can offer. But they are hot and bulky, and the masks limit vision. People can quickly become dehydrated while wearing the suit. They must continuously drink water so they don't overheat.

"We also have to train for how to do our medical and nursing treatments wearing the gear,'' says Hardy. "We still need to start IVs, intubate, et cetera.''

Ensign Rebecca Carmichael, a team member who also works in casualty receiving, knows there is a strong possibility that soldiers may be exposed to chemical or biological agents, such as VX nerve gas.

"I'm glad I can be here to help,'' she says. "This is where I want to be.''

Fellow team member Lt. Keith Michon agrees. "We don't want to see chemical or biological contamination; but if we do, we're ready.''


Janet Boivin, RN, editorial director for Nursing Spectrum's Greater Chicago/Tri-State division, was aboard the USNS Comfort March 21-25.