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USNS Comfort Delivers Medical Care, Sign of U.S. Commitment to Haiti

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

PORT AU PRINCE, Haiti, April 14, 2009 – A massive white ship with a big red crosses on its superstructure anchored off Haiti’s capital city is bringing hope – and tangible proof of a continued U.S. commitment -- to the Haitian people, the ship’s commodore told American Forces Press Service.

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David Phanor, a student at the University of Haiti School of Dentistry, watches as Capt. Dominik Rudecki, a dentist in the Canadian Army, cleans the teeth of a patient in Killick, Haiti, April 11, 2009. U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Marcus Suorez

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

USNS Comfort pulled into Port au Prince Harbor on April 9, the first stop during its four-month Continuing Promise 2009 humanitarian assistance mission through Latin America and the Caribbean.

Just a few days into the mission, Comfort’s crew of medical professionals from the Navy, Army, Air Force, Coast Guard and U.S. Public Health Service, as well as about a dozen nongovernmental organizations and international partners, are making a dramatic impact here.

Hundreds of patients have been ferried to the vessel for treatment, where Comfort’s staff keeps its X-ray machines, CAT scan machines, pharmacy, dental suites, physical therapy and other services buzzing, reported Navy Capt. James J. Ware, commander of Comfort’s medical operations.

Ware reminded the medical staff during an all-hands session last night on the ship’s mess deck about the impact of the care they’re providing.

“For some of these people, this may be the first time -- and it could be the only time -- that they ever get the opportunity to see a physician,” he said. “This isn’t about numbers, but we want to be able to take care of as many people as we can. What you’re doing is making a real difference in people’s lives.”

Three football fields long and one wide, USNS Comfort is equipped and staffed to provide just about any kind of medical treatment except open-heart surgery or organ transplants, Ware explained.

“This ship has amazing capabilities,” said Navy Cmdr. Mark Marino, who commands Comfort’s nursing staff. “We’re really running a state-of-the-art operation here.”

But the ship’s greatest asset, Ware said, rests within its people. They’re the faces of a joint, interagency, combined operation he said brings the precise measure of skills, commitment and heart to Continuing Promise.

“We are here to provide relief for the needy, and to provide hope. It’s that simple,” Ware said. “We are here sharing hearts and minds, and helping relieve our neighbors’ suffering.”

Last night alone, about 100 patients and their escorts spent the night aboard ship preparing for or recovering from surgeries conducted by the Comfort’s crew.

Navy Cmdr. Shawn Safford, a pediatric surgeon, dangled a stuffed animal in front of an 18-month-old baby girl this morning as he conducted a post-operative checkup. A young girl who’d suffered for months with a broken hip lay recovering from surgery that will enable her to walk again. Another little boy recovered from surgery on his club foot. A 40-year-old man left the ship this morning after yesterday’s successful surgery on his once-deforming cleft palate.

But Comfort’s impact extends beyond its skin. Teams from the Comfort set up two clinics ashore to provide medical and dental services to needy Haitians. Veterinarians are at work treating animals. A team of 21 Seabees is renovating the pharmacy in the downtown general hospital and repairing flooring in the dormitory that houses its medical students. Biomedical equipment repairers are helping onshore medical facilities fix broken medical equipment. An Air Force band is offering free performances in local communities.

In addition, teams from the Comfort are providing classroom as well as hands-on medical instruction to local health-care providers and students.

“We’re providing a better quality of life for people,” said Navy Capt. Robert G. Lineberry Jr., Comfort’s commodore and tactical commander.

“We’ve already reached about 5,000 lives through our medical procedures, educational programs and engineering and community relations projects,” he said. “And by the time this mission is completed, we will have touched hundreds of thousands of people’s lives throughout the Americas.”

During its four-month mission, USNS Comfort will visit Antigua, Barbuda, Colombia, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Panama.

The visits provide a great opportunity for the United States and its partners to work together as they would during a hurricane, earthquake or other disaster, Lineberry said. By the time Continuing Promise wraps up later this summer, about 1,500 medical professionals will have benefitted from this training, he said.

“This is a capability that we have to have, and a great mission to help ensure we’re ready,” he said.

That readiness got put to the test during last year’s Continuing Promise mission, conducted by USS Boxer, then USS Kearsarge. Kearsarge was bound for a scheduled visit to Colombia in September when it was diverted here to relieve suffering and loss of life in the wake of Hurricane Ike and several other deadly tropical storms.

Helicopters crews and ground support personnel aboard the amphibious ship delivered and distributed critically needed food and relief supplies.

As it transits the region this year providing critically needed care, Lineberry said, the towering Comfort sends an unmistakable message.

“People know the name Comfort, and they understand that it brings relief and hope. It’s a symbol of who we are and what we stand for, and of our continued commitment to the region. It’s a demonstration of our continuing promise.”

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageA Haitian student from the University of Haiti School of Dentistry assists Navy Cmdr. David Hartzell during a procedure in Kollick, Haiti, Aprill 11, 2009. U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Marcus Suorez  
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