The USS America, the newest U.S. Navy ship, was recently commissioned during San Francisco’s Fleet Week. Some good friends of Medgadget were hired to take the official photo, and while helping out we got to meet Captain Hall, the commanding officer of USS America. Hearing that we report on medical technologies, the captain invited us aboard to take a look at the medical facilities that were designed to serve injured troops in time of war and civilians during humanitarian missions. We jumped at the opportunity and now invite you to come along for a tour of the ship and the hospital that’s within her hull.
To an untrained eye, USS America may look like an aircraft carrier, having a flat deck with parked planes and helicopters atop. Instead, it’s an amphibious assault ship designed for placing a large group of Marines on shore, whether for military or humanitarian missions. To get an idea about the kind of humanitarian missions this ship can handle check out Anthony Bourdain’s visit to Lebanon for his “No Reservations” TV show.
The ship has helicopters on-board, Osprey aircraft that take-off and land vertically but fly like a turbo-prop, and will soon have F-35B Lightning II fighters that also don’t need a proper runway. Below the deck there are armored troop carriers that can move on water, cannons, Jeeps, and other heavy machinery that Marines use. Having over two thousand people on board whose job it is to get off and engage in combat, there will be a need for a hospital, and there is one.
We were taken below deck through a maze of halls broken apart by submarine-like doors every few dozen steps. The place feels cold, grey metal making up the floors, walls, and ceiling. The people, though, were warm, friendly, and welcoming. We were lucky to have Tom Holder, a hospital corpsman, show us around. A hospital corpsman is essentially a clinical provider aboard the ship with a variety of responsibilities which in a civilian hospital would be performed by different people. Tom explained to us that the hospital operates very much like a traditional hospital, but because of its location and limitations sometimes has to approach things a little differently. Seriously injured patients and those with difficult to manage diseases and conditions are stabilized and quickly evacuated to an on-shore facility. There is no CT scanner or cath lab aboard, so someone having a stroke will have to get a quick flight out of there. Luckily, most of the people on the ship are young and in good shape, so it’s mostly accidents that lead to surgeries.
The hospital is pretty compact, broken down into a receiving/pre-op area with room for up to seven beds and that has a huge elevator door through which injured people are brought from the flight deck, two operating rooms, a three bed ICU, and a 23 bed recovery area. There are also three dental wards and accompanying dentists that do everything from regular cleanings to root canals.
Since there are a two operating rooms inside the ship’s hospital, there’s usually one surgeon, one anesthesiologist, a couple surgical techs, a critical care nurse, and a hospital corpsman around when on deployment. There is also an internal medicine physician and a general medical officer to take care of the overall healthcare of the troops.
At 844 feet (257.3 meters) the ship is quite huge, so there’s rarely any turbulence to interfere with a surgery. Of course the docs won’t schedule one if there are choppy waters on the way. When the ship is in a port, most of the patients are treated by the local on-shore hospital, so most of the medical staff was out on the town when we were visiting.
One of the operating rooms is used as the hospital’s ER to manage medical emergencies, while the other is mostly dedicated to pre-planned, elective procedures. These include hernia repair and appendectomies, and any other procedure that doesn’t require the patient to be moved on-shore.
When we visited, there were only a couple patients in the recovery area behind the curtains and one in the forward section playing a baseball video game to pass time. While it’s typically setup with 23 beds, the ship is somewhat modular and allows opening up of further sections where sailors typically sleep, and whose beds can be converted for casualty overflow. In this way, the hospital can turn into a facility with 600 beds in no time.
The dental suites are pretty much just like the ones in the civilian world, including a dental X-ray, nitrous oxide, and whatever else dentists commonly use.
There are mass casualty medical boxes with red crosses on them seemingly everywhere we went around the ship. These contain medical supplies to quickly treat injuries, especially burns that can happen whenever there’s a lot of fuel and heavy equipment in a closed space.
Out of ignorance, we asked Tom whether there are special medical procedures in place in case the nuclear reactor powering the ship malfunctions. Turns out that, although it’s the size of an aircraft carrier, this ship runs on diesel.
We had a great time during our trip and would like to thank Captain Hall, Tom Holder, and everyone else aboard the ship for the welcome we received and wish them safe journeys across the world’s oceans.