The hospital ship USNS Comfort left Port-au-Prince harbor Tuesday night to begin a five-day sail back to Baltimore, its Navy commanders having determined - against the advice of some civilian doctors on the ground - that the floating medical center is no longer needed in earthquake-damaged Haiti.
Pentagon officials say they made the decision to recall the 1,000-bed hospital, which arrived in Haiti Jan. 20, after "determining her crew completed the humanitarian relief mission it was directed to conduct."
"The need for Comfort's capabilities declined significantly during the final weeks of its mission, as medical facilities and field hospitals in Haiti assumed a greater role addressing the health care needs of Haitians," officials said in a statement released Tuesday by the U.S. Southern Command, which oversees American military operations in Haiti.
Yet doctors who have worked at some of those field hospitals are calling the ship's departure premature.
When it sails away today, they say, the Comfort will take with it the only modern, well-equipped treatment facility available to most of the island's struggling population.
Dr. Andrew N. Pollak, a University of Maryland orthopedic surgeon who returned from Haiti recently, described military and civilian doctors in Port-au-Prince scrambling last weekend to find treatment for a patient with a potentially life-threatening injury - while the Comfort sat empty in the harbor, preparing to depart.
"They're just completely punting," Pollak said of Pentagon officials who decided to pull the ship out of Haiti.
"Without the Comfort, the country is going to have no critical-care capability to speak of," he said.
Built within an old oil tanker in the 1980s, the Comfort was designed as a floating treatment facility for combat casualties. But despite being dispatched to the 1991 Persian Gulf War, to New York after the 2001 terrorist attacks and post-Katrina New Orleans in 2005, the ship has rarely found a need for its capabilities.
That changed in Haiti. Navy officials say the Comfort's crew treated more than 540 patients in the first 10 days of their arrival, and performed 843 surgeries over seven weeks. At the height of its mission the Comfort was taking on patients at a rate of one every six to nine minutes.
The pace started to decline in early February, and on Feb. 27 the ship discharged its last patient with an earthquake-related injury. It has waited in Port-au-Prince harbor ever since, treating the occasional American soldier or emergency patient while awaiting further orders.
Meanwhile, relief workers have encouraged the Navy to leave the Comfort in Haiti, even offering to staff it with civilian physicians, nurses and technicians. Pollak was among a group of key civilian doctors who appealed directly to top officials at the Pentagon.
"You can't expect the Comfort to bring the entire country up to the standards of the U.S. health care system, but there has to be some bailout capacity," Pollak said.
Military physicians say privately that the Haiti relief mission was complicated by the endless need for advanced care for patients whose conditions were unrelated to the Jan. 12 disaster.
In Haiti primarily to treat fractures and crush injuries from the earthquake, the crew was inundated with patients suffering from diseases, heart trouble, infections and other ailments that owed more to the country's lack of development than to the earthquake.
Navy officials declined to address questions about the continuing health care needs in Haiti, while praising the Comfort's accomplishments over the past seven weeks.
"Their efforts saved the lives of many patients and helped everyone treated begin the important process of recovery," U.S. Air Force Gen. Douglas Fraser, commander of the U.S. Southern Command, said in the statement.
The Comfort is scheduled to return to its home port at the Canton Pier in Baltimore on Sunday.