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Mercy Nears Halfway Point in Humanitarian South Pacific Deployment

By Navy Lt. Jennifer Cragg
Special to American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, July 21, 2008 – Military Sealift Command hospital ship USNS Mercy is preparing to leave the third country it has visited in the South Pacific during a four-month humanitarian deployment supporting Pacific Partnership 2008.

Mercy arrived in Timor-Leste on July 12 for a two-week humanitarian visit, but this isn’t the first time the crew has visited the country.

“This is the third time we have been here. … The first time was in 2005 following a tsunami, and the USNS Mercy was back in 2006, and now this time,” Navy Capt. James Rice, commander of the military treatment facility aboard Mercy, said July 17 on the “Dot Mil Docs” program on BlogTalkRadio.com.

“We look forward to coming back in the years to come on a regular basis. One of the most important aspects of the Pacific Partnership is the long-term commitment to work with each of the nations and to make sure that the friendships and the relationships we build are long-lasting ones,.” Rice said.

In 2006, Mercy participated in a four-month humanitarian and civic assistance deployment that brought medical treatment to the people in the Philippines, Bangladesh, Indonesia and East Timor. Prior to that, in 2005, Mercy deployed in response to the December 2004 tsunami that struck Southeast Asia.

“Pacific Partnership is really why doctors and nurses went into medicine in the first place,” Rice said. “In particular, all of us enjoy taking care of patients and working with each other on a very human level. It is just something that gets to the core of why we went in our professions in the first place.”

Since the beginning of Pacific Partnership, the Mercy medical staff has seen more than 41,000 patients and provided dental services to nearly 9,000 patients. They have performed more than 600 surgeries and provided veterinarian medicine care to more than 4,000 animals. In addition to the medical care provided, Mercy’s biomedical repair technicians have fixed medical equipment in the hospitals they’ve visited.

“We have repaired many of their equipment items in their hospitals that will allow them to continue to provide health care services long after we’re gone,” Rice said.

Though they sometimes have to work at a technological disadvantage, Rice said, the host nations’ medical knowledge often is very sophisticated.

"Sometimes they don't have the technology that we have, but most often they know what they want us to do for them, and they ask for very specific training or very specific diagnostic treatment and modalities," he said.

Various nongovernment organizations from the United States and from the host nations also are participating in Pacific Partnership 2008.

“We have NGOs from the United States -- in particular, Operation Smile, Project Hope, and [the University of California at San Diego] pre-dental society -- and we are working with host-nation NGOs -- in particular, Timor Red Cross, Australian Aid International … and many others,” Rice said.

“The idea is that the host nation NGOs are on the ground all the time, and we would like to interact with them so that they will be able to continue various projects for patient care that we happen to take care of while we are here for two weeks,.” Rice said.

Prior to arriving in Timor-Leste, Mercy visited the Philippines and Vietnam. The ship is about halfway through a four-month humanitarian mission that soon will take the crew to Papua New Guinea and the Federated States of Micronesia.

Partner nations participating in Pacific Partnership 2008 include Australia, Canada, India, Indonesia, South Korea and Portugal.

"Medicine is really a universal common denominator,” Rice said. “It is an incredible experience to have in the operating room an American or Australian as the surgeon, perhaps an anesthesiologist from India."

He added that while the medical professionals initially have to figure out how to best communicate, they do use translators.

“In the operating room a lot of times, it’s visual anyway, the language barrier has not been a big problem,” Rice said. “But it really has been a tremendous experience for all of us, and it has helped us to bond very closely together and make long lasting friendships that all of us are cherishing.”

(Navy Lt. Jennifer Cragg works in the New Media Directorate of the Defense Media Activity.)

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