The maiden voyage of MED-1

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From a health care perspective, Dr. Tom Blackwell knew the United States needed tools to be better prepared to handle national disasters -- natural or intentional. The emergency medicine physician at Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte, N.C., envisioned a mobile hospital sophisticated enough to serve a major area paralyzed by crisis. In 2000, Blackwell and Kevin Staley, medical services director for Charlotte's Mecklenburg EMS Agency, spearheaded a project to develop one.

It took four years to engineer Carolinas MED-1, which the Homeland Security Department funded, and another year and a half for MED-1 to be called into action. But after Hurricane Katrina hit, the prototype mobile hospital finally delivered on its hype. MED-1 opened its doors in a Kmart parking lot in Waveland, Miss., Sept. 4 and has treated patients at a rate of about 300 per day since then.

"The biggest things we saw upfront were rashes and skin infections from people who had been wading through the mud -- we call it the 'Katrina crud,'" Blackwell said. "We saw a lot of this rash that was a species of cholera, a lot of lacerations, some heat- related illnesses and people who just needed their prescriptions refilled."

Without access to medical records, MED-1 physicians take patient histories the old-fashioned way: bedside, with pen and paper. At the end of each day, these records are logged into a master database and then sent to the Mississippi Health Department.

Besides Internet access, MED-1 has satellite communications and a contract with DirecTV, which enabled physicians to stay connected when much of Mississippi was literally in the dark.

Goodwill has been remarkable, Blackwell said. Harris, a Florida-based communications equipment company, showed up one day to donate satellite telephones. Clear Solutions, a water purification company in Georgia, volunteered to provide hospital-grade filtered water to MED-1. A volunteer fire department in Alabama also donated water.

"This is our first deployment, so we didn't know how it was going to go, but it has done more than pretty well," Blackwell said. "It has served our purpose about 95 percent of the time."

-- Hope Cristol

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