By Ana Maria Puente
The U.S. Navy Ship Comfort departed Norfolk, Virginia last June with a crew of about 800, including approximately 500 medical personnel from the U.S. Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, Army, Public Health Service (USPHS), Canadian Forces, Operation Smile and Project Hope. This was a first ever partnership between the military, federal government and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The purposeto provide health services in 12 Latin America and Caribbean countries from mid-June to mid-October, 2007.
Staff from the USPHS, Canadian Forces and Project HOPE rotated on and off the ship every 4-6 weeks. I had the opportunity to participate with the fourth and final USPHS team for visits to the last 3 countries, Trinidad/Tobago, Guyana and Suriname. During the 4 weeks on board I worked at the pre-operation ward and helped set up a clinic in Suriname. Prior countries visited include Belize, Guatemala, Panama, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia and Haiti.
A Multi-Faceted Mission
While surgical teams performed surgery on the ship, up to 3 preventive medicine teams provided primary health care services at various medical treatment sites in local communities. Helicopters and large convoy trucks transported equipment, pharmaceuticals and personnel from ship to the sites. Surgical procedures corrected club-feet and cleft palates/lips, repaired hernias, reduced contractures from burns, removed cysts, benign tumors and cataracts.
Patients needing surgery were screened at the medical sites on shore then transported via helicopter to the Comfort. Upon landing on the ship’s flight deck patients checked in at the casualty and receiving area, stayed overnight in the pre-operation ward, then escorted to the recovery ward following surgery. After recovery, usually the next morning or occasionally later the same day, patients were checked out and flown via helicopter back to shore.
Project HOPE taught midwifery and nursing students a range of topics including emergency obstetrics, women’s health, basic first aid, and cardiac and advanced life support. Veterinarians from the USPHS treated animals with a de-worming solution and gave vaccinations then taught the owners how to keep livestock healthy and how to keep track of animals treated.
The immediate effect of this 12-country mission was over 90,000 patients seen by a physician, nurse practitioner, dentist or optometrist and about 1,170 surgeries. Operation Smile performed over 100 cleft lip operations. While the type of health services and medical procedures performed require little follow up they can make a huge difference in the quality of life for each individual.
Such as the little boy I met when he came to the Comfort Inn for surgery to repair a birth defect in his foot. Watching him the next day as he climbed into the helicopter with his little foot in a cast heading back to shore with his mother and knowing that in about 2 months he will be walking normally and will grow up to play soccer like other kids was an unforgettable sight. Likewise, in Guyana seeing the results of surgery that reduced contractures from an old burn wound in the right arm of an Amerindian women and how she now has full range of motion in that arm making her life much easier was memorable.
This mission not only strengthened relationships between NGOs, the U.S. and Ministries of Health in countries visited, it also created opportunities for forming relationships between health professionals. I had an opportunity to work with a group of nursing students in Suriname, where Dutch is the national language, that came aboard to help as translators. In between working with patients we talked and shared notes on nursing education and practice in our respective countries with plans to continue sharing information in the future.
After the last few patients were flown by helicopter back to Suriname, a bit of sadness lingered in the air while closing down the wards. Heading home on the Comfort I reflect on the gratitude expressed by patients for the medical assistance they received. It gives people in other countries a chance to see the compassionate side of Americans and provides Americans an opportunity to learn about other countries and cultures. Many on board the Comfort had no idea how poor the rest of the world is and how much we have that we can share. I feel grateful for being in a position to help people and for the lasting relationships formed.
Ana Maria Puente is the daughter of Alberto Puente; she was an organizer with the United Farmworkers Union in San Diego County during the 1970s and is the daughter of Consuelo Miller, owner of Fandango’s Restaurant in Old Town. Ms. Puente is a Nurse Officer with the US Public Health Service with a Masters of Public Health in Global Health and currently works in the Washington, DC area.