US Hospital Ship USNS Comfort Helps Thousands of Ecuadoreans

Military medical specialists with high-tech equipment alleviate Ecuador’s public health system in underprivileged regions.
Julieta Pelcastre/Diálogo | 30 October 2018

International Relations

U.S. service members and their Ecuadorean counterparts gave special care to the children during the humanitarian aid mission Enduring Promise, in Esmeraldas, Ecuador. (Photo: Ecuadorean Ministry of Defense)

The U.S. Navy hospital ship (USNS) Comfort (T-AH 20) brought medical assistance to the people of Esmeraldas in northwest Ecuador, October 22-26, 2018. U.S. service members in close collaboration with the Ecuadorean Navy and the Ministry of Public Health provided the humanitarian aid to improve living conditions of thousands of Latin Americans.

The crew of medical experts aboard the USNS Comfort provided care and free medication to thousands of people in Esmeraldas as part of U.S. Southern Command’s humanitarian mission Enduring Promise 2018. (Photo: Ecuadorean Ministry of Defense)

The USNS Comfort made its first stop in Ecuador as part of Enduring Promise 2018, a U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM)-sponsored 11-week humanitarian aid mission to four countries of Central and South America. The objective of the mission is to help alleviate local medical care challenges due to an increase in cross-border migrants, as well as to bring humanitarian assistance to communities in need. Enduring Promise also includes social activities and work to refurbish local schools.

“It’s an important milestone in the process of renewing bilateral relations with the United States,” Ecuadorean Navy Rear Admiral John Merlo León, commander of North Operations, told Diálogo. “The visit [of the USNS Comfort] fulfilled a humanitarian role, bringing specialized medical care to relieve the work of the public health system in the Esmeraldas area.”

More than 900 U.S. medical specialists, nurses, and military technicians cared for 8,000 children and adults during the five-day mission. Health professionals from Ecuadorean military hospitals assisted with the mission. The USNS Comfort team provided free services in preventive medicine, pediatrics, dentistry, optometry, physiotherapy, and dermatology at the Ecuadorean Port Authority and the Luis Vargas Torres Technical University.

The USNS Comfort medical team also conducted 100 surgeries aboard the ship; patients were transported via helicopters and vessels. The ship can host up to 1,000 patients per day and has a variety of health services such as post-surgical rooms, a blood bank, and oxygen plants.

“The medical care shows that Ecuador is a priority among the countries to which the United States provide humanitarian aid,” Rear Admiral Mauricio Alvear Oramas, chief of the Ecuadorean Navy’s General Staff, told Diálogo. “The Ecuadorean Navy, through the North Operations Command, deployed in Esmeraldas province and participated so the objectives of the health campaign would be met.”

Combined efforts and goodwill

The Ecuadorean and U.S. governments combined efforts to carry out the mission as planned. U.S. Navy personnel with an Ecuadorean background readily contributed.

“I’m proud to be American-Ecuadorean and to participate in this mission that joins both countries toward a common good,” said U.S. Navy Lieutenant Cristian Jaime Zhunepluas, a USNS Comfort communications officer originally from Guayaquil, who joined the U.S. Navy in 1999. “Having an Ecuadorean crew aboard the hospital ship is a source of satisfaction,” Rear Adm. Alvear added.

The medical team aboard the USNS Comfort provided general medicine, dentistry, optometry, pediatrics, and dermatology services in Ecuador. (Photo: Ecuadorean Ministry of Defense)

Lt. Zhunepluas leads a team of 35 sailors and airmen aboard the USNS Comfort to guarantee the proper functioning of the communications network. He oversees operational procedures for programs providing health care, treatments, and medications to the communities.

“This humanitarian work represents the friendship and partnership values [we share] with Ecuador, and it’s a great opportunity for us to use our skills and medical capabilities to help our partner nation and achieve an enduring impact. We [Ecuador and the United States] have and share many ideals that are in tune with our humanitarian work,” U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander Adrián Mora told Diálogo. A radiologist born in Quito, Ecuador, Lt. Cmdr. Mora joined the U.S. Navy in 2007.

According to U.S. service members of Ecuadorean descent, the main challenge facing the ship’s crew was the language barrier. They chipped in to help communications run smoothly with their bilingual abilities.

As such, Lt. Cmdr. Mora and Lt. Zhunepluas also served as interpreters between the medical personnel and Ecuadorean civil organizations. “I had cataract surgery on my left eye aboard the USNS Comfort. It was an experience worthy of praising those who are aboard for their humanitarian work. The medical part was excellent; everybody works as a team. They explained the procedures through an interpreter,” USNS Comfort patient Matilde Vargas said in a video of the Ecuadorean Ministry of Defense.

Donating and sharing experiences

During Enduring Promise, the U.S. Navy helped improve the infrastructure of schools with limited financial means located in various neighborhoods of Esmeraldas. The U.S. government also sent medical equipment to military hospitals and charitable foundations to improve medical care.

“Although the main goal of the hospital ship was to provide health services, our personnel had the opportunity to get to know the ship’s technology in terms of navigation, propulsion, machinery, and auxiliary equipment that this type of vessel requires to operate,” said Rear Adm. Merlo. “Highly skilled naval personnel drive and man this vessel.”

U.S personnel also taught training seminars to nursing and emergency military officers who serve as combat nurses in surveillance tasks during border patrols and maritime controls aboard riverine speedboats in the Ecuadorean archipelagos. Lt. Cmdr. Mora shared his knowledge and experience in radiology with medical students to help young Ecuadoreans improve their medical training.

“This is a concrete example of the United States providing humanitarian aid and regional stability through the U.S. Navy,” Lt. Cmdr. Mora said. The hospital ship USNS Comfort continues to Peru, Colombia, and Honduras to meet the health needs of thousands of people, as part of its international cooperation effort.

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