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US Navy Hospital Ship Launches Latin America Mission


A U.S. Navy hospital ship is launching a medical and humanitarian mission that will include stops in 12 nations in Latin America. The crew of the USNS Comfort hopes to see 85,000 people in communities where medical care is in short supply or too expensive for many residents. VOA's Brian Wagner visited the ship off the coast of Miami, as it sailed to the Caribbean.

The floating hospital is nearly as large as an aircraft carrier, and it has equipment that rivals some large hospitals on land. The Navy deployed the USNS Comfort to the Persian Gulf near the beginning of the war in Iraq, to provide care to U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians wounded in the conflict. But the Comfort's current mission will focus on helping civilians with little access to medical care in 12 Latin American nations.

The Comfort is to arrive in Belize in the coming days, where it will dock for about a week before continuing to other nations in Central America, the Caribbean and South America.

Air Force General Paul Van Sickle says military officials approached all U.S. partner nations in Latin America about possible visits by the USNS Comfort, but he says the schedule was limited to fit into the ship's 120-day deployment.

"We are very happy with the schedule that we have, and it does match up with the partner nations that we are trying to show our commitment to, as well as show the compassion, is what the bottom line is for this deployment," he said.

The crew of about 780 people maintain onboard facilities that include 12 operating rooms, four intensive care units, and a dentistry unit. Medical staff expect to treat adults, children and even pregnant women who may be brought aboard to deliver their babies.

The head of the Comfort's medical unit, Navy Captain Bruce Boynton, says much of the work, however, will be conducted on land.

"Primary care providers will go off the ship, set up clinics and hospitals to provide that care," he explained. "We'll also have an area where the surgeons go ashore to screen people that the ministries of health have selected [as] needing surgery. Then we will bring those surgical patients back to the ship."

Captain Boynton says one focus for the Comfort's crew is to perform cataract surgery for scores of patients in areas where he says there is a lack of eye surgeons. Medical staff also plan to repair cleft palates, perform hysterectomies, and administer a variety of medical exams on patients.

The medical crew includes military personnel as well as civilian volunteers and members of non-governmental aid groups, such as Project Hope. Robert Leitch is medical director of Virginia-based Project Hope.

"[Project] Hope itself has very close links with the pharmaceutical business and the medical supply business, and a lot of what we brought on here is called gifts in kind, which will be donated to the various countries that we meet," he explained.

As it sailed to the Gulf of Mexico, the USNS Comfort was packed with supplies, including medical equipment, hospital gowns, and 800 donated teddy bears to be distributed to children in the region.

The Comfort last sailed to the Gulf of Mexico in 2005, when it deployed to assist victims of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in the southern United States. It also took part in a 1994 U.S. mission to Haiti to treat patients and process refugees fleeing the nation's military rulers, following a coup against President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The Comfort's sister ship, the USNS Mercy, was deployed in 2005 to assist victims of the Asian tsunami.

The Comfort's latest mission is intended to last about four months, but officials say they may be asked to divert in the event of a serious hurricane during the region's annual storm season. Navy Tech Commander Carol Daniel says the crew is ready for nearly any situation during the mission.

"We have one operating room that is completely set up and ready to go, so if we had to do an emergency case five minutes from now, we could do that," she said.

President Bush authorized the Comfort's mission as part of an administration effort to advance the cause of social justice in the Western hemisphere. The hospital ship is scheduled to stop in Belize, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, Suriname, and Trinidad and Tobago.

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