Dr. Barbara O'Pray of MIT Medical had wanted to work on the peacetime hospital ship the S.S. Hope ever since she was a little girl.
"It was something I always wanted to do," O'Pray said, though she never got the chance. "Most of the opportunities are so far away," she explained.
When Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, however, there was suddenly a need for doctors close to home. Although the S.S. Hope was retired in 1974, O'Pray got the chance to serve aboard the U.S.N.S. Comfort, one of two naval hospital ships that have taken its place.
O'Pray used two weeks of her vacation time to provide health care for victims of the Aug. 29 hurricane that devastated New Orleans and parts of the Gulf Coast.
"Immediately after Hurricane Katrina struck, I was looking for a way to volunteer," O'Pray said. She served in the region from Sept. 13 through 29.
The 900-foot-long, 100-foot-wide ship can hold 1,000 hospital beds and has 10 operating rooms. At the time O'Pray was on board, there were 250 beds on the ship.
Commissioned in 1958, the S.S. Hope was the world's first peacetime hospital ship. Project HOPE (Health Opportunities for People Everywhere), now partnered with the U.S. Navy, continues the mission of providing health education and humanitarian assistance with two ships as well as land-based training and education programs on five continents, including North America.
Following the hurricanes, the Comfort's emergency room saw about 200 patients a day. Although they spent most of their nights on the ship, O'Pray and her fellow volunteers spent a lot of days off the boat, helping out as needed in affected neighborhoods.
Much of what she saw was shocking. In one small Vietnamese community in Biloxi, Miss., the mainstay shrimping industry was in ruins. Many residents' boats had been lost at sea, and many people lost relatives.
"It was totally devastated," O'Pray said. The Project HOPE group set up a small clinic for the community.
O'Pray logged a few 24-hour shifts. "I was in a small, 325-bed, community hospital in Gulfport [Miss.] where we were seeing about triple the number they usually saw," said O'Pray. "The doctors were wiped out."
The problems she encountered varied. "We didn't see a lot of acute injuries," she said, but there were a lot of chemical rashes and skin infections from the dirty water as well as "routine problems that had nowhere else to go."
There were also a number of patients suffering post-traumatic stress symptoms, she said. One patient suffering from insomnia had spent five days trapped in his house in New Orleans and three days in the Superdome before making it to his brother's house in Gulfport.
In some cases, Project HOPE set up clinics to care for people waiting in line for help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency or the Red Cross. Although drinks were available, the wait could last 10 to 15 hours, and "people were dropping like flies," said O'Pray.
O'Pray, who is a pediatrician, evaluated a 10-year-old boy with appendicitis in the emergency room at Columbia Garden Park Hospital in Gulfport who had to be referred to the ship for surgery because there were no local surgeons available.
"The next day he was golden," O'Pray said.
Although it was difficult for O'Pray to spend time away from home and work, the experience was well worth it, she said.
"This is something I have always wanted to do."
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 2, 2005 (download PDF).