Navy Clinics Juggle to Keep Health Care Going to Troops; Deployment of Medical Personnel to Iraq and Other Areas Makes Continuity and Speed Difficult
Jackson, Gordon, The Florida Times Union
Byline: Gordon Jackson, The Times-Union
ST. MARYS -- Patients undergoing treatment at Navy medical clinics throughout the Southeast are finding it more difficult to make an appointment on short notice.
When patients arrive, many are being diagnosed and treated by someone not responsible for their primary care, a different doctor or corpsman unfamiliar with their medical history.
While it's not a medical crisis, the clinics in the region are modifying hours and juggling staff to make up for the loss of doctors, medical corpsmen and doctor's assistants who are being assigned overseas, mostly to Iraq.
Terresa White, public affairs officer at Jacksonville Naval Hospital, said 116 medical staff have been deployed from seven clinics in the region -- from Key West to Athens, and 74 more will be deployed "very soon."
"Our mission is for health protection," White said. "Most of the staff have a dual role. They have to be prepared to deploy and wear a pair of muddy boots."
One of the regional medical clinics impacted is at Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base, where fewer staff members are working harder to meet the medical needs of patients.
"It impacts us tremendously," said Lt. Tara Branton, a physician at the medical clinic at Kings Bay. "We have to pick up the slack."
The Trident submarine base clinic, which treats between 4,000 and 5,000 patients a month, has two staff members already serving overseas and will lose a doctor, a doctor's assistant and two corpsmen -- the Navy's equivalent of an Army medic -- within two weeks.
The clinic will lose another corpsman in upcoming months, clinic administrator Cmdr. Gary Wertz said.
The four clinic workers being deployed will serve a six-month tour of duty with Marines in Iraq, providing the initial treatment for the wounded troops, Wertz said.
"None of it's more than life saving, at this juncture," he said. "It's more to [help wounded troops] survive the transit to definitive care."
The major impact, Wertz said, is "reality has hit home" that any active-duty Navy staff member at the clinic can be reassigned to a combat zone at any time and expect to treat casualties.
"They have a better appreciation for why they're in the military," he said. "They get a first-hand account of why they train. The experience matures them."
The ones who remain behind can also expect to work harder, he said.
"The biggest impact is we've historically been able to treat walk-ins," Wertz said. "If it's routine in nature, they may have a day or so delay."
MEDICAL FIELD DUTY LOOKING REAL
Petty Officer 1st Class Edward Miller, a corpsman who has been in the Navy 17 years, said he never expected to carry a sidearm or wear body armor while on duty. But reality set in when two co-workers were deployed overseas last year.
"I didn't think I'd be in the field until the first two went over," Miller said.
Once Miller said he realized he might get orders to serve in a combat zone, he began working out, mostly running, in anticipation he might be next to go. It turns out Miller may have had a premonition.
He recently returned from Camp Lejeune, N.C., where he received 2 1/2 weeks of training in rules of engagement, small weapons fire, some advanced medical training, wearing body armor and what to expect once he arrives and begins serving with Marines in a combat zone.
"A lot of it was getting oriented to the Marine Corps side of the house," Miller said. "It's very hands-on oriented."
An important part of the training, and a major concern, is the roadside bombs that have caused so many casualties in recent months, Miller said.
But the training and his medical experience from his years in the Navy make Miller confident he is prepared for combat and to treat wounds during his six-month tour of duty.
"Some of those going with me are seasoned veterans," he said. …