Keala Cavatero, 5, waits for the return of her father on the USNS Mercy.
Keala Cavatero, 5, waits for the return of her father on the USNS Mercy. Photo by Chris Stone

Capt. John Rotruck of the USNS Mercy said it was “a wonderful thing” his 1,000-bed hospital ship cared for far fewer patients in Los Angeles than expected.

“Turned out that it wasn’t as bad there as everyone thought it might be,” Rotruck said Friday with his “big white ship” as backdrop upon its return to North Island. Seventy-seven people were treated over seven weeks.

Normally dispatched on humanitarian voyages on the Pacific Rim, the Mercy was to be a “relief valve” in case L.A. hospitals were swamped with COVID-19 victims.

“We were ready to meet any demands the city of L.A. gave us,” the skipper said. Now it’s “time to take a breath, take a refresher” and have the ship ready for any mission within five days.

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But just as it does in other nations, the Mercy needed interpreters on this trip, said Rotruck, commanding officer of the medical treatment facility.

The Mercy took its first patient two days after its March 27 arrival.

About nine Mercy crew members tested positive in early April for coronavirus — despite such mitigation as having meals on the flight deck “so people could spread out even more,” Rotruck said.

They were isolated off ship while 53 others were removed the ship as a precaution.

Most of those crew have recovered and are back on duty, the Navy confirmed.

Officially dispatched as “defense support of civil authorities,” the Mercy was “poised and ready to take a lot more patients,” Rotruck said.

Most of the medical personnel — who stayed in hotels rather than aboard ship — were bused back to San Diego beginning Tuesday.

About 350 crew members returned to San Diego after serving non-COVID-19 patients in the Port of Los Angeles.

“I am very impressed with how well the team came together on this rapid response mission, completing a wide-range of high-quality medical procedures from orthopedic surgeries to interventional radiology,” Rotruck said in a statement. “I couldn’t be more proud.”

About 60 members assigned to Mercy’s medical treatment facility will continue to assist at skilled nursing facilities in the Los Angeles and Orange County areas at the request of FEMA.

While docked at the World Cruise Center Terminal, the medical professionals aboard the Mercy treated a wide variety of patients and performed general, orthopedic and plastic surgeries; interventional radiology; exploratory laparotomy; and skin grafting.

There were 36 successful surgeries. And the ship also performed its first-ever pacemaker replacement.

The last patient was discharged May 5, the Navy said.

Capt. Dan Cobian, mission commander, said in a statement that besides supporting Los Angeles-area hospitals, “we were able to expand our mission by providing support to a local skilled nursing facility and we also sent personnel to aid USNS Comfort for their effort in New York.”

The Mercy’s sister ship USNS Comfort served the New York area and treated 182 patients, about 70% of whom were COVID-19 patients. It returned to its homeport in Norfolk, Virginia, on April 30.

While docked in L.A., the hospital ship was the target of a train engineer who reportedly told police in Los Angeles that he intentionally crashed his locomotive at high speed near the Mercy hospital, attempting to expose a perceived conspiracy.

The freight locomotive stopped more than 250 yards from the Mercy. The ship was not harmed during the attempted attack, and no injuries were reported.