People worldwide have seen the iconic photo of the hospital ship USNS Comfort entering New York Harbor on a mission to help relieve the overwhelmed medical departments of N.Y.C.
Photo by Brendan Mcdermid/Reuters
The staff of this massive floating hospital is made up primarily of a very rare breed of hybrid medical provider known as Hospital Corpsmen. During the extraordinary times of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the ensuing mobilization of the U.S. Navy's hospital ships USNS Mercy and USNS Comfort, I thought it would be worthwhile to share some background of the Hospital Corps and the role of the men and women who make up the Navy’s largest enlisted rating. It is a career that is typically a mystery to those outside of military healthcare, but advanced programs, such as Duke University’s PA Program, have used the model of the Hospital Corps to structure their own curriculum.
How is this Wilderness Medicine?
In “Wilderness EMS,” Seth Hawkins, MD, MFAWM, FACEP, FAEMS, offers two definitions of wilderness medicine, both of which seem as if they were written for Hospital Corpsman:
- Wilderness care and problem-solving in circumstances where the surrounding environment has more power over our well-being than does the infrastructure of our civilization.
- Medical care delivered in those areas where fixed or transient geographic challenges reduce availability of, or alter requirements for, medical or patient movement resources.
The field and expeditionary environment that units in the United States Navy and Marine Corps fit those definitions, and, with some exceptions, consist mostly of Physician Medical Officers and Navy Corpsman, or Corpsmen alone. The Corpsmen can be found worldwide in the field, deployed shipboard at sea, or by submarine, providing care for large and small military units during various operations and humanitarian relief efforts. Corpsman fly as crewmembers on search and rescue helicopters at sea and ashore, as well as casualty evacuation missions in combat zones. Corpsman work with every unit of the Navy and Marine Corps, in every hardship zone around the world, tirelessly caring for their sick and injured teammates and anyone else who crosses their path.
A Proud Heritage
The history of the Hospital Corps traces its roots back prior to World War I, where Hospital Corpsman performed medical care alongside Marines in battle. Although the title of Hospital Corpsman did not come about until it was officially recognized by congress in 1898, various forms of the job have existed since the inception of America’s Navy and have held a wide variety of titles, from surgeon’s steward to Loblolly boy. These consummate professionals have set the standards of care for treatment of casualties so high that they are the most decorated group among all our Nation’s military service personnel. In fact, Navy corpsmen have earned 22 Medals of Honor, 179 Navy Crosses, 959 Silver Stars, more than 1,600 Bronze Stars, and have had 20 ships named in honor of them.