VA hospital here ready to be backup


The 291-bed Baltimore Veterans Administration Medical Center on Loch Raven Boulevard is "on alert" and ready for its new role as a backup to military hospitals in the Washington area and hospital ships and field hospitals overseas, officials say.

To prepare for a possible war in the Persian Gulf, key personnel at the VA hospital have been attending Department of Defense seminars in chemical and biological warfare at Aberdeen Proving Ground and staging mock disaster drills, R. David Edwards, chief of public affairs, said yesterday.

Special isolation areas are being set up for casualties of germ warfare. Plans call for the immunization of the VA hospital's health care workers against anthrax, cholera and other biological agents that could be used in the Middle East conflict.

And, in the expectation there may be more women casualties than in any other war, the hospital that traditionally has served mostly men has put together a team of gynecologists and other specialists to take care of wounded women.

"We're on alert and things are pretty much in place," said Dr. Karl Zucker, associate chief of surgery, who is in charge of gearing up the hospital for its new mission. "We've been preparing to take care of the wounded since last August."

Zucker, who served in the Navy Medical Corps in the Persian Gulf in 1984-85 during the Iran-Iraq conflict and is a commander in the Naval Reserve, said he will be leaving next week for active duty.

"I guess I'm going to the gulf area, but no one has told me yet," said Zucker, who is also an associate professor of surgery at the University of Maryland Medical Center.

The Baltimore hospital is one of 80 VA primary hospitals, "which means that it can basically offer all types of medical and surgical care that wounded casualties would require," Zucker said.

The VA system of 80 primary hospitals and 79 secondary centers plans to supply 9,200 beds within 24 hours after the outbreak of war and a total of 25,000 beds within a month.

Two other Baltimore-area veterans' hospitals have made arrangements as backup facilities to help handle wounded from the Persian Gulf.

The Veterans Medical Center at Perry Point in Cecil County has been on alert status for nearly 90 days, according to hospital officials.

Since October, staff at the 901-bed hospital have undergone disaster drills and reported regularly to the regional Veterans Administration office about types of beds and emergency transportation available, said Joan Adams, administration assistant to the hospital medical director.

Officials at the 273-bed Fort Howard Veterans Administration Medical Center in Baltimore County said the facility has no additional alert plans but has been working for years as a backup facility.

Wounded soldiers first would be taken to a battalion aid station on the battlefield. If their injuries were serious, they would be moved to a medical facility somewhere behind the front lines, where they would undergo emergency surgery, Zucker said.

From there, the wounded would be sent to ships, hospitals in Germany, civilian hospitals in the gulf states or to the United States, where they would first go to military hospitals, which have "very limited" bed space, and then they would be sent to veterans hospitals, initially on the East Coast, Zucker said.

The Baltimore VA Medical Center could provide as many as 250 beds if they were needed, not only for the wounded but for civilian patients who would be evacuated from Washington area hospitals, such as Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Zucker said. To provide the beds, the VA hospital would discharge as many patients as it could and transfer others to civilian hospitals.

Military physicians and civilian casualty experts have told Baltimore VA Medical Center officials that the wounded would arrive in the United States three to five days after they are hurt in battle.

Chemical warfare would be "more frightening and lethal" than biological warfare, Zucker said.

"Even minute quantities [of chemicals] in contact with any exposed skin can cause severe symptoms and even death," he said. "Those injured in the event of chemical warfare would be decontaminated overseas before leaving for the United States.

"Biological or germ warfare would spread infectious agents like anthrax and cholera that would cause fever, diarrhea, dehydration and weakness and affect the soldiers' ability to fight."

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