Committed to the Health and Well-being of Colombians
For the second time in its history, the Colombian city of Tumaco, in the department of Nariño, hosted the U.S. hospital ship Comfort. Its 10-day visit in June 2011 came at the invitation of Colombia’s government, Military and Police to support their significant progress in maintaining the peace and well-being of its inhabitants.
On this occasion, the hospital ship USNS Comfort provided medical care to more than 5,000 inhabitants of Tumaco and nearby rural areas, successfully performed more than 120 surgeries onboard, built two classrooms in the village of Chilvicito, offered veterinary care, refurbished three schools, and exchanged knowledge with medical experts from the region.
The aim of the Continuing Promise 2011 (CP11) mission in Colombia was to demonstrate U.S. Southern Command’s commitment to the country and its National Consolidation Plan, which is leading to significant improvements in security, cooperation, the ongoing presence of the Colombian state, and improvement in Colombians’ quality of life.
Colonel Mauricio Castro, commander of the Colombian 70th Marine River Battalion in Tumaco, explained, “As part of the joint work being done by the two countries, on the side of the Colombian Military, we have two doctors from the National Navy seeing patients; Air Force engineers who are supporting the construction of the classrooms in Chilvicito; and, of course, the National Army providing security for all the personnel and citizens who are participating in this mission.”
CP11 made a significant impact on the community through cooperation and training, which promotes stability in the region. The humanitarian aid was offered within the framework of existing cooperation agreements between the governments of the United States, Colombia and other countries in the region — in the form of a long-standing friendship with the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean.
Among the achievements of CP11 was the surgery performed on Irene Becerra, a 101-year-old patient who arrived at the Max Seídel School clinic complaining of severe headaches and the loss of vision in her left eye.
The CP11 medical team determined she was suffering from cataracts and scheduled surgery for June 6. After a two-hour recovery period, the oldest surgical patient in the history of the CP team was ready to begin the process of recovering her sight. “I want to thank God, the medical staff aboard Comfort, and everyone else involved in making this procedure possible,” said Becerra.
Lieutenant Commander Francine Worthington, patient administration department head aboard the Comfort, said she was honored to care for Becerra during a process that led to her undergoing “the life-changing surgery.”
“A smile is the beginning of love, and the works of love are works of peace,” Lt. Cmdr. Worthington said. “The partnership begins one person at a time. Ms. Becerra represents the beauty of the Colombian people.”
The various events held during the ship’s visit, from June 2-12, helped integrate the community towards the efforts of the local and national governments to improve the quality of life in the city.
Along the same lines, donations were made by several international NGOs and by the staff of the U.S. Embassy in Colombia, which sent clothes and toys, among other items.
During his visit, Diego Molano, national social action director for the Office of the President declared, “President Juan Manuel Santos designated me to accompany this action because Tumaco is a fundamental part of the Consolidation Plan and of the strategic choice to recover the Pacific [Ocean] and Tumaco for all Colombians.”
Representing the U.S. Embassy was Deputy Chief of Mission Perry Holloway, who stated that the event is “the best demonstration that in Colombia, people want to strengthen and work [jointly with] the United States.”
In addition to offering humanitarian aid, the Comfort’s visit represents a cultural exchange. During his time in Colombia, the mission commander, U.S. Navy Captain Brian C. Nickerson, declared, “We believe that understanding the culture is a prerequisite for building relationships and providing appropriate care.”
Tumaco and Colombia’s Southern Pacific Region
The port city of Tumaco, on the Nariño coast, has been characterized as one of the export routes for drug trafficking in Colombia. The chief drug-trafficking routes to Central America and Mexico have been identified and monitored by the Colombian National Navy and the Coast Guard, together with the Army and the National Police, in collaboration with other nations, such as the United States and Panama. Intensive joint operations by the Colombian Armed Forces, together with the Police, have resulted in seizures of more than 60 semisubmersibles, according to the Colombian National Navy. These are usually constructed to transport drugs along river routes through the Colombian jungle.
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the National Liberation Army and criminal gangs dominate the drug-trafficking business in this region of the country.
THE COMFORT HEADS TO NICARAGUA
Leaving Colombia behind, the U.S. hospital ship Comfort sailed to Nicaragua, where patients from several towns lined up at a health clinic set up in the port city of San Juan del Sur. Those needing simple surgeries without requiring follow-up care were transported across the choppy waters to the hospital ship for surgery and overnight care. The beneficiaries of the free health services praised the U.S. humanitarian mission for its orderliness, effectiveness and friendliness.
“They treated me in a great way,” said Gabriela Gómez, after returning to shore following gallbladder surgery aboard the Comfort. Gómez explained that she had been waiting six months for the surgery, which she was afraid to undergo at her local health clinic in the town of San Jorge, and unable to pay for in a private hospital in Managua.
Bayardo Antonio Tenorio, a 71-year-old retired farmer with limited means, underwent cataract surgery aboard the Comfort and said the U.S. medical mission “is a godsend for folks who cannot afford the cost of these services out-of-pocket.”
The soft-spoken Tenorio said the personal treatment from the U.S. medical staff was “excellent,” and he appreciated that doctors took the time to explain the procedure to him beforehand. He also said he was happy to learn that the participants of the U.S. mission do not judge people on personal background or political affiliations.
“They just ask what illness you have,” Tenorio said. Besides providing health care, the Comfort’s Continuing Promise mission also served as a tactical and strategic training opportunity for the U.S. Armed Forces. The Comfort visited nine countries during its five months at sea.
“If you look at the number of disasters that have occurred over time [in this region], the ability to work with partner nations in a peacetime setting or nondisaster setting prior to having to work side by side [in disaster response] is huge,” said the ship’s commanding officer, U.S. Navy Captain Brian C. Nickerson. “It’s a great rehearsal.”