USNS Comfort Brings Free Medical Care to Latin America
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, July 24, 2007 Medical personnel aboard the USNS Comfort hospital ship are providing free medical care to thousands of people in Nicaragua as part of a four-month humanitarian assistance deployment to more than a dozen Latin American and Caribbean countries.
A woman and her son awaiting medical treatment at the national medical hospital in Puerto Barrios, Guatemala, give a peace sign and a smile to U.S. Navy Lt. John Fage, a spokesperson for the Military Sealift Command hospital ship USNS Comfort June 30, 2007. U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Steven King
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
The Comfort sailed out of Norfolk, Va., June 15. Before arriving in Nicaragua, personnel aboard the ship provided medical care to more than 55,000 patients in Belize, Guatemala and Panama.
"This deployment provides an opportunity for us to work together with countries in the region to make a lasting contribution across our hemisphere," Navy Adm. James G. Stavridis, commander of U.S. Southern Command, said before the ship departed. "Comfort's mission will reach far beyond the patients we will see each day.”
Comfort’s mission is part of U.S. Southern Command’s Partnership for the Americas initiative, an on-going training and readiness operation designed to strengthen regional partnerships and improve multinational interoperability. The ship is also scheduled to visit Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guyana, Haiti, Nicaragua, Peru, Suriname, and Trinidad and Tobago before completing its voyage in September.
The ship's medical treatment facility is staffed by about 500 medical personnel, covering a wide variety of medical fields and areas of expertise. In addition to Navy personnel, the staff includes members from other military services, other government agencies and even non-government organizations.
One such organization is “Operation Smile,” whose members are providing medical care to children from Nicaragua with facial deformities, primarily cleft lips and palates. About 25 volunteers from Operation Smile will complete 35 surgeries by tomorrow, when their visit to Nicaragua ends. They started working in that country July 19.
“We have a whole team of nurses, anesthesiologists, plastic surgeons, dentists, orthodontists, a speech therapist, a nutritionist and a psychologist, because it is all connected,” said Lily Montealegre, president of the board for Operation Smile in Nicaragua. “Once the operation is done, we do follow-up, and that is what the local Nicaraguan mission also takes care of."
Operation Comfort and the Navy began working together during a mission aboard the USNS Mercy in Bangladesh. The “positive experience” during that mission led to the organization’s continued collaboration with the Navy, said Linda Highfield, a registered nurse and clinical coordinator for Operation Smile aboard Comfort.
“I think it just goes to show, both with Operation Smile and everyone helping this mission, how we feel about the people around the world,” said Highfield. “We want to be helpful, and that is why we are here.”
Dr. Arash Babaoff, the Operation Smile pediatrician aboard Comfort, said the partnership with the military is working out very well.
“I can’t think of a better alliance than working with the U.S. Navy, or any of the forces, for that matter,” said Babaoff. “I really hope we get more opportunities to work together in other countries. I have been personally so impressed by what I have seen here and what we are doing. I always knew that our military was helping people in other places, but to really see this firsthand, for me, has been a really great experience.”
In addition to the work done by Operation Comfort in Nicaragua, the ship’s personnel are providing thousands of people with various other health care services. One of three locations the Comfort team is serving is the Quince de Julio Health Care Center, lying at the foot of the San Cristobal Volcano in the rural area of Chinandega.
Medical doctors and personnel from the U.S. Navy, Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Public Health Service and volunteers from Project Hope and Operation Smile were operating a full medical clinic within moments of arrival. The services provided at Quince de Julio included adult and pediatric primary care, dentistry, optometry, immunizations, and prescription services. Navy Seabees from Construction Battalion Maintenance Unit 202 also made repairs to the site.
“We’re putting a footprint here and hopefully someday they’ll remember the U.S. was here,” said Cmdr. Linda Nash, Comfort’s director of nursing services. “We were able to administer health care to the people and take care of ongoing health problems that they hadn’t been able to take care of before.
“By helping these people and training them by practicing with other professionals, they’ll carry that knowledge and that relationship with them for many years and always remember it,” Nash said. “Hopefully that’s what we are doing here in Nicaragua is establishing some long-term relationships.”
Children from the Montica Berio Education Center supported Comfort’s mission by providing translation assistance to the medical personnel so they could better understand each patient’s needs.
“We are helping our community by translating for the doctors and patients,” said Ana Villanueva, a Nicaraguan translator. “I feel great about being here working with the U.S. to help with translating generally because we think that it pleases our heart to do something good.”
Comfort is spending three days at la Rancheria Clinic and is also providing care at the Jose Schendal Hospital in Corinto and Health Care Center Realejo in Chinandega.
During the mission in Nicaragua, surgeons aboard the removed an extra toe from a five-year-old Nicaraguan boy on July 21.
Darwin Padilla, was born with the extra toe, which prevented him from wearing shoes or attending school. His mother, Paula Padilla, said she heard about Comfort’s humanitarian mission three days before service members and civilians from Comfort started seeing patients at Jose Schendal Health Center in Corinto, Nicaragua, and had a friend put her son’s name on the list to be seen.
Padilla said they traveled for two hours by bus from the town of Somotillo along the Nicaraguan border to reach the hospital where Darwin was evaluated by medical staff and flown by helicopter to Comfort for surgery.
Padilla was very impressed when she came aboard Comfort.
“I like the ship, but what I like most about it is the people,” Padilla said. “They are loving and caring. It’s good to know that there are people that care about other countries and are willing to help.”
Lt. Cmdr. Eric Shirley, the pediatric orthopedic surgeon aboard Comfort, operated on Darwin and said the surgery went well and Darwin should be able to function normally from now on.
“He’ll have no problems running or wearing normal shoes. He’s going to do very well when he gets back, though I’ll have to put him in a cast for the first couple of weeks to keep him out of trouble,” Shirley said.
(Compiled from reports by U.S. Navy Seaman Jeff Hall, Petty Officer 2nd Class Joshua Karsten and Petty Officer 2nd Class Brandon Shelander, USNS Comfort Public Affairs.)