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Comfort for America

HSC alumnus commands premier floating Navy hospital

February 2003

by Will Sansom

As world events such as 9-11 continue to cause uncertainty, the graduates of the Health Science Center are a constant, reliable source of comfort for America. In thousands of hospitals, clinics and care facilities, our physicians, nurses, dentists and allied health professionals meet the needs of South Texas and, indeed, all of America.

Many graduates meet the needs while rendering distinguished service in the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines. The Health Science Center is a crucial partner with military medical education and training in San Antonio. This is the story of just one link between the Health Science Center and our armed forces.

Capt. Charles L. Blankenship, M.D., a member of the Medical School Class of 1976, commands one of the world’s premier hospitals, which is in an unlikely place - on board a U.S. Navy vessel. The 900-bed hospital on the USNS Comfort is one of America’s greatest national assets in wartime or peacetime.

Capt. Blankenship is responsible for care aboard the combat support facility, which in January was relocated to the Indian Ocean in support of America’s global war on terrorism and in preparation for a potential military operation. At full activation, the Comfort has 62 physicians on board, and the full medical staff and support staff totals 1,214 personnel. Surgical specialties include general surgery, orthopedic surgery, otorhinolaryngology, neurosurgery, ophthalmology, obstetrics and gynecology, urology, thoracic surgery, plastic surgery, and oral and maxillofacial surgery. Medical specialties include general internal medicine, critical care medicine, family practice, pediatrics, dermatology, nephrology, cardiology, pulmonology and emergency medicine. "We are comparable to any tertiary care medical facility in the country in the services we can provide when fully staffed," he said in an e-mail interview from shipside.
Capt. Charles L. Blankenship
The Comfort occupies a very specific role in wartime medical treatment. Imagine this scenario: On the battlefield someone yells, "Medic! Medic!" A wounded American serviceman is down, bleeding, unconscious. Carried to a battalion aid station, he is resuscitated with weak vital signs. He is moved to a field hospital, where vitals are stabilized and surgery saves his leg. But reconstructive surgery by an orthopedic surgeon is necessary. The decision is made to move this soldier to the Comfort, which is waiting off shore. There the soldier receives the specialty care that will enable him to be moved to Europe or home to the United States for longer-term rehabilitation.
"Knowing a great medical capability is in the area gives our troops a great deal of confidence that if they get hit, they will be well cared for," said Harold L. Timboe, M.D., M.P.H., associate vice president for administration at the Health Science Center and former commanding general of Walter Reed Army Medical Center and Brooke Army Medical Center. A 1978 graduate of the Health Science Center, Dr. Timboe returned to his alma mater last July to work on issues involving homeland defense, disaster preparedness and military medical partnerships. He and Capt. Blankenship were two classes apart in the Medical School.

The Comfort also performed invaluable service in the wake of the September 11 terror attacks on the World Trade Center. "The arrival of the Comfort in New York City was a great visual indication of the nation’s resolve and support of the city," Capt. Blankenship said. "Likewise, the city was able to use the ship’s departure as a visual indication of a shift from acute crisis management to the longer recovery phase." The Comfort, whose home port is Baltimore, set sail for New York within hours of the tragedy.

Dr. Blankenship in the OR
Dr. Blakenship escorts distinguished visitors into one of the 12 operating rooms aboard the USNS Comfort. Doctors performed 337 surgical procedures in these suites during Operation Desert Storm.

"The Comfort’s activation to New York City was one of those events that you could not believe had happened," he said. "Our initial orders were to mobilize as a 500-bed hospital ship, but it quickly became apparent that there were few casualties and those few were very well cared for by the hospitals in the immediate area. The mission then changed to one of providing logistical support for the rescue workers at the World Trade Center site. In a matter of a few hours, we offloaded most of our medical staff, leaving a crew of about 300 personnel. The medical staff who remained devised a plan in about three hours that would allow us to operate the hospital much like a hotel."

The ship has 900 hospital ward beds and more than 1,200 beds for crew members. For the first time in its history, all spaces were occupied. The Comfort provided shower facilities, clothing, toiletry packages, and berthing, messing and laundry facilities for the rescue workers, Capt. Blankenship said. Comfort crew members also acted as stress relief workers at Ground Zero.

The Health Science Center helps prepare many of our military health professionals for their future roles. Anywhere military medical officers are serving, some are likely to have been educated at the UTHSC. Like Capt. Blankenship, they may have attended the Medical School for four years. Others benefit from the Health Science Center’s residency programs, Grand Rounds and other educational activities. The Health Science Center is an active partner with military medicine, particularly with the U.S. Army and Air Force, which operate Brooke Army Medical Center and Wilford Hall Medical Center nearby. Several medical residency programs are integrated between the university and these military hospitals. Each year, about 150 military medical residents and fellows train with Health Science Ce Center faculty members, while the university sends 100 residents to rotations at the military hospitals. Capt. Blankenship is a product of this close relationship. A Texas native, he returns to San Antonio twice a year to teach advanced trauma life support at Fort Sam Houston. "Many of my classmates were either former military members or were in the military members or were in the military scholarship program," he said. Like Capt. Blankenship, they now defend our country’s values and ideals.

Capt. Blankenship was in the Medical School’s first handful of classes. When he came to campus in 1972, the only hospitals in the South Texas Medical Center were Bexar County Hospital (now University Hospital) and Methodist Hospital. The Audie L. Murphy Memorial Veterans Hospital opened in 1973. "One of the fondest memories of my student days was how supportive people were of the school, the county hospital and medical students," he said. "The people we treated felt that we were their private physicians and made us feel that we were an important part of their lives."

The recipient of a Navy Health Professions Scholarship, he is remembered as an excellent student. A letter recommending him for residency placement noted his outstanding work in Medical School. "I’ve been involved in graduate medical education most of my Navy career," he said. Besides his tours aboard the Comfort, he was chief of surgery at the National Naval Medical Center (NNMC) in Bethesda, Md., from 1990 to 1996 and program director for the general surgery residency at NNMC from 1990 to 1995. He continues as a staff general surgeon at the NNMC when not aboard the Comfort.

During the Gulf War, Capt. Blankenship served as surgery department head aboard the Comfort. From 1992 to 1995, he was the commanding officer of the medical treatment facility, during which time the ship was activated for Operation Sea Signal (migrant processing) and Operation Uphold Democracy in Haiti. His second tour as commanding officer began in June 2000. He is truly one Health Science Center graduate who is providing comfort for America.


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