USNS Comfort Completes Continuing Promise 2015 Humanitarian Mission in Honduras and Haiti
By Dialogo September 24, 2015
The Military Sealift Command hospital ship USNS Comfort (T-AH 20) has completed its successful six-month deployment for the U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM)-sponsored, U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command/U.S. 4th Fleet-conducted humanitarian mission Continuing Promise 2015 (CP-15).
The "Great White Angel" provided medical, dental, and veterinarian care to 11 Latin American and Caribbean partner nations, concluding its tour in Haiti from September 10-19. That stop followed visits to Belize, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Jamaica, Nicaragua, Panama, and for the first time, Dominica and Honduras. By the end of CP-15, USNS Comfort personnel conducted more than 1,000 surgical procedures and treated more than 120,000 patients.
CP-15's mission includes showing U.S. support and commitment to Central and South America and the Caribbean in addition to conducting civil-Military operations such as humanitarian-civil assistance, subject matter expert exchanges, medical, dental, veterinary,and engineering support, and disaster response to partner nations.
“This deployment is beyond anything I had ever expected,” wrote Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class (EXW) Lazara Y. Medina, a preventive medicine technican (PMT) assigned to the Department of Public Health for CP-15. ”We are working alongside members of the Army, Air Force, and partner nation Military and non-governmental organization civilian volunteers from all over the world.
“Overall, it has truly been a humbling experience. The opportunity for us to come together as public health advocates, bringing the best of what we have to others and for each host nation to do the same, while still promoting public health, is extremely rewarding.”
Providing health care in Honduras
Before stopping in Haiti, the USNS Comfort visited Honduras. The Naval hospital ship is the world’s largest such vessel; it is equipped with 12 operating rooms and carries a staff of 700 medical professionals. It was an impressive sight in the Caribbean’s blue waters as it approached Puerto Castilla in the city of Trujillo on August 27th: the white ship with red crosses painted on its sides is as tall as a 10-story building and spans the length of three football fields.
There, during a 10-day stop, its staff provided services in general medicine, pediatrics, ophthalmology, and dentistry to Hondurans in Trujillo and Corocito. Additionally, a veterinary team visited farms and houses in the nearby area, while a team of engineers built two schools.
Honduran authorities and residents worked with those personnel to connect residents in need of health care with CP-15; they provided transportation to and from the medical ship, translators for USNS Comfort medical personnel, and follow-up care for patients.
“We worked as a team,” said Dr. Guillermo Sáenz, a member of the medical team at Joint Task Force Bravo, which operates from the Soto Cano Air Base in Comayagua. “Health authorities were involved, the Military, the Permanent Commission of Contingencies (COPECO, for its Spanish acronym),
and the Education Ministry. The USNS Comfort’s leadership was pleased with the high-level organization.”
That organization included Honduras’ Ministry of Health, which screened patients in advance and selected more than 9,000 residents to receive health care, with 100 pre-selected patients getting surgeries on the ship. In the end, however, the medical staff surpassed those projections: 12,000 patients received health care by the time the ship departed the Central American nation.
Firefighters and churches also helped to connect patients with CP-15. Dr. Sáenz and other JTFB members traveled on helicopters to the region of La Mosquitia, in the eastern part of the country, to pick up patients and bring them to the USNS Comfort.
“There were 25 ophthalmology patients, 15 of whom were scheduled to have sight-restorative surgeries because all of them were practically blind. We picked them up prior to their surgeries and flew them back home afterwards.”
Because of their sight limitations, these patients could not travel by themselves, and they were accompanied aboard the CH-47 Chinook and HH-60 Blackhawk helicopters by civilian escorts.
Civilian doctors volunteer to help CP-15
CP-15 also benefitted from civilian translators such as Honduran medical doctors Ana Cristina Molina and Georgina Miralda, who traveled from different towns to Trujillo and bridged the language barrier between USNS Comfort medical personnel and their Spanish-speaking patients. Molina, who drove 17 hours to Trujillo from Alauca, a town near Nicaragua, praised the operation.
“We worked with U.S. Navy doctors and I was impressed that they were willing to give more than they had done the day before, which has motivated me to give more of myself as I return to my patients in El Paraíso,” she said. ”Honduras was the first country where the translators were physicians and they really liked that because it facilitated things; we could understand the problem and better explain it. They told us they had never worked like that before.”
Miralda was also pleased to help.
“The Ministry of Health asked a group of medical doctors to participate in the Brigade as translators,” Miralda said. “This has been one of the best experiences in our careers. Because we are in the medical field, we were able to streamline the attention patients received. We were able to cover more patients and to more speedily help solve their problems.”
But Molina and Miralda also helped treat patients; in one case, they helped detect a serious condition affecting a 9-month-old baby, with a cardiologist confirming the baby was born with a heart pathology that required surgery.
“Maybe if that mom had not come to the Brigade, she wouldn’t have known her child needed a surgery that can heal him,” Molina said. “His prognosis is good.”
Last stop: Haiti
After visiting Honduras, the USNS Comfort made its final stop in Haiti. There, they provided medical care, conducted community meetings, including a veterinary seminar, and facilitated engineering projects. During the first two days in the country, where the Continuing Promise visited for the sixth time, physicians conducted 36 surgeries and cared for 3,500 patients. Ulimately that number would grow to more than 14,000 patients at Amiral Killick Coast Guard Station and St. Luc hospital in Port-au-Prince.
“We are here to deliver care to the people in Port-au-Prince alongside our Ministry of Health counterparts in an effort to continue strengthening our partnerships and relationships,” said U.S. Navy Captain Andrew Nelson, a native of Norfolk, Virginia, and officer in charge of the medical site established at Admiral Killick Coast Guard Station. “We set up our medical site with different services, to include adult medicine, pediatric medicine, dental care and optometry, along with a variety of sub-specialties. We are working together in order to deliver the most efficient means of care to as many citizens as possible during the mission stop.”
Praise for CP-15
CP-15 won high praise from patients and participants alike.
“The spirit of service of the U.S. Navy is worthy of being imitated,” said Miralda. “I admire their capacity, the warmth and respect with which they cared for their patients and treated all of us who were cooperating with them. Despite the exhaustion, the climate, and the large number of patients, they treated everyone with the best quality possible. I hope to participate again if the Comfort returns in 2017.”
“It shows people in remote areas that they are not forgotten, and it shows that when Hondurans come together for a purpose, they do it well,” Dr. Sáenz said. “It demonstrates that with our coordinated efforts, we can achieve big things.”