The U.S. Navy is no stranger to humanitarian missions. But with the emergence of “smart-power” doctrine, focused on building alliances and exporting stability, professional capacity and good governance to what Tom Barnett calls “the gap” of the developing world, Navy humanitarians have found themselves on the front lines of U.S. and world security, especially in Africa (via Africa Partnership Station) and Latin America (by way of Operation Continuing Promise). In April 2009, the Navy hospital ship Comfort set sail from Virginia on a four-month mission to deliver medical, engineering and training assistance to seven Latin American nations. David Axe interviews some of the key participants.
by DAVID AXE
Captain James Ware heads the hospital on Comfort, pictured, with a staff of some 200 doctors, nurses and other medical professionals. On a four-month deployment, Ware’s people might treat some 100,000 patients.
Axe: What has been your most complex operation?
Ware: We’ve done 700 surgical procedures, including general surgeries on hernias and plastic surgery. The EMT surgeons have done some dramatic life-changing surgeries. One patient hadn’t seen for 10 years, then the optometrist brought sight to her eyes. One grandmother here hadn’t seen her grandchildren. Her grandchildren had to cook for her. After three days, she had sight in both eyes and looked forward to cooking for them.
Axe: What about the training aspect for host nations?
Ware: We’ve got people from Canada, Brazil, France, The Netherlands, and also the seven countries we’re going to. Training is working hand-in-hand together. Often you see three surgeons working together — not because they have to, but because they want to. No one has to be the lead. They’re very comfortable sharing in the good-will, the gratifying humanitarian work you don’t normally see in the private sector, especially in our country. The Dutch team aboard … their government had agreed to bring in three surgical teams, rotating six weeks apiece, including civilian doctors, one surgeon, one anesthesiologist, two OR nurses, two technicians — five individuals, per team. They basically come together, form a team in Holland and come to the ship, where they will provide 20 percent of the surgeries we do on this mission, for a total of 300-to-400 procedures. They interact with our doctors and we interact with them.
Project Hope agreed bring 14 individuals, just for the [host-nation] training package. They plan, months in advance, the type medical training they’ll do.
We train host nations in: advanced cardiac life support, pediatric life support and basic life support. We’re training hundreds or even thousands of providers in the host countries.
It’s a three-prong attack: Comfort doctors go out to a local hospital, as in Antigua, where they went to one large local hospital. We bring 10-to-15 dentists on board the ship from each country to train with Comfort‘s equipment. For nurses, there’s a one-to-three-day training course.
Some Comfort providers are, in turn, trained by host-nation doctors. In Panama, doctors taught Comfort in infectious diseases, such as malaria. Panama is an expert in infectious diseases.