‘This is what I signed up for’—Navy combat nurse ready to treat the hell out of patients aboard hospital ship Comfort

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USNS Comfort

The Mercy-class hospital ship USNS Comfort (T-AH 20) is shown pier side at Naval Station Norfolk prior to deploying to New York City. March 25, 2020

A Navy Reserve combat nurse from Concord is deploying on the USNS Comfort, the military hospital ship on its way to New York City to respond to the coronavirus crisis.

Five days ago, Capt. Lynne Blankenbeker got a call from military command, asking about her availability to serve on board the Comfort. They asked about any possible exposure to COVID-19, and wanted to know if she had a medical role here in New Hampshire that would prevent her from serving.

“They didn’t want to compromise our communities,” she said.

Blankenbeker isn’t currently working in direct patient care; she’s been focusing on a run for Congress in the 2nd District.

“So I was moved very high on the list of folks they would be calling to provide support,” she said.

Asked how long the deployment will last, she replied, “This is in response to the national emergency for COVID-19, so we will stay out as long as we are needed.”

She’s proud to serve, Blankenbeker said.

“I’m not a person who runs from a fight, and this is an invisible enemy,” she said. “This is what I signed up for.”

So Wednesday night, Blankenbeker flew to Norfolk, where the Comfort is currently stationed, and reported to the ship the next day. She said she can’t discuss the departure date but said, “We will be heading out soon.”

According to published reports, the Comfort, which has a capacity of 1,000 hospital beds, will be used to care for trauma patients and others who do not have COVID-19, so that New York hospitals will have the capacity to care for patients who are infected with the coronavirus. “It’s my understanding that we are not going to be a COVID-19 hospital,” Blankenbeker said.

That said, the mission is flexible and the huge ship and its crew are adaptable, she said. “Our hospital ship has operating rooms, it has isolation rooms, it has ICU capabilities,” she said. “It’s a hospital that floats.”

"I know how to protect myself"

New York State has become the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States, with more than 37,000 cases reported as of Thursday. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper on Tuesday said USNS Comfort will ship out to New York “in less than 14 days.” Her sister ship, USNS Mercy, left San Diego on Monday en route to Los Angeles.

Blankenbeker’s specialty is operating room nursing, but she has training in trauma, advanced life-saving and combat nursing. She said she’s not worried about catching COVID-19.

“This is a pandemic and we are going to be dealing with patients, but we have put every safeguard in place to protect ourselves, and so I feel prepared, I feel trained, and I know how to protect myself,” she said.

Blankenbeker, 56, a former state representative, is no stranger to deployment. After graduating from nursing school, she joined the Air Force in 1986 and then served in the Air Force Reserve before switching over to the Navy Reserve 20 years ago.

She deployed to the Middle East in 1990 as an operating room and trauma flight nurse during Operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield. After joining the Navy Reserve Nurse Corps in 2000, she served at Walter Reed Medical Center in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. She was recalled to active duty in 2011 and deployed to Afghanistan.

Her husband, Dennis, and adult daughter, Shannon, fully support her new mission, Blankenbeker said.

“My family is used to me deploying,” she said. “I think they’re a little more relieved this time because we’re not going into a battlefield environment where there are rockets and bombs and mines.”

And, she said, “I think they’re proud to have somebody in our family who is able to step up and support our nation in this way.”

As she heads for New York, Blankenbeker said she’s leaving her campaign in the hands of her New Hampshire team.

“I am focused 100 percent on the United States Navy right now. This is where I need to be, what the nation has called me to do,” she said.

She considers this deployment “an honor,” she said.

“I’m very proud to wear the uniform and I’m very proud to serve. This is exactly what I’ve been training for my whole career.

“I’m just grateful that I have the skill set to be able to answer the call,” she said. “I can’t think of anything more noble to be able to do than to be at the front line of caring for America.”

©2020 The New Hampshire Union Leader (Manchester, N.H.) - Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.