Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Nicaragua! Lucky Number 7!

Nicaragua is our seventh and final country for Continuing Promise 2009! That's got to be lucky, right! Wrong! But who needs luck!

First, Nicaragua came literally on the heals of El Salvador. Less than a day after leaving La Union, we arrived at Corinto, Nicaragua. It was only about an 80 mile trip. The bad part was that it gave our people almost no time at all to recharge their batteries. El Salvador was a very difficult country from a logistics perspective. It was a long boat ride every day to and from the shore, the weather was brutally hot, and the Pacific swell made it difficult to get back onto the ship. Nicaragua made El Salvador feel like a walk in the park!

The first couple of days, we sat at anchor outside the harbor of Corinto. Several times we needed to stop surgery because the ship was rocking so hard! Finally, one day, we took 14 degree rolls which made life pretty interesting on the ship: We couldn't operate, we couldn't land helicopters, we couldn't launch or recover boats, and lesser men weaved their way down passageways like they had spent a little too much time at the pub!

So, we put to sea, heading into the swell instead of rolling back and forth in it. We ran a racetrack course taking us 12 miles or so out to sea, and then coming back in toward shore in a perfectly timed ballet to meet our small boats as they braved the waves coming back to the ship. We did that for nearly a week.

Finally, the waves settled a little and we went back to anchor. Well, for a little while at least. Then we were right back to rockin and rollin, so in no time, we were back to the NASCAR circuit!

I usually try to get ashore on the third day of each mission. This time, it wasn't until about 10 days into the mission before I got a chance to go ashore. We were being visited by Dr. Rice, the President of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, MD. I was on the faculty of that school a few years back, so it was a pleasure to welcome him aboard! CAPT Ware and I took him ashore to show him one of our medical sites before he had to fly off. We flew to shore on one of the Army helicopters that are helping to support our mission while here in Nicaragua. It was a beautiful day!

Our Director for Administration, LCDR Danielle Wooten and our Chief Information Officer, LT Sean Kelley accompanied us.

But now we are reaching the end. During our last day in Nicaragua, we sent 164 of our Shipmates ashore for the last time. We said goodbye to our friends from the Netherlands, and from Project Hope. We also said goodbye to 55 Army reservists, and 45 Navy reservists. Most of our volunteers from the University of California at San Diego went home, and we said goodbye to several of our Host Nation physicians who have been with us for most of this journey:

From the Dominican Republic, we said goodbye to Dr. Salas.

From El Salvador, we said goodbye to Dr. Schonenberg.

From Nicaragua, we said goodbye to Dr. Perez and Dr. Nicaragua. Yes that's right, Dr. Nicaragua from Nicaragua. I guess he's kind of like their Uncle Sam!

Tonight we had our Close-Out Brief for Nicaragua and for the mission as a whole. This was primarily to recap all the work done in all seven of our Host Nations.

As always, the close-out brief was amazing to see and hear some of the stories from what happened in Nicaragua. Our pediatricians treated little children that would have died without their help. Our surgeons did amazing work. Our veterinarians treated thousands of animals and taught veterinary students as well. I wish that there had been a way to capture those stories and to share them with everyone, but maybe that's one of the rewards for being here: to hear first hand and to see with your own eyes the work of these truly great humanitarians.

I started writing this blog post back on July 14th. It is now July 19th and we are anchored in Panama City for three days of liberty. This is our first liberty port in 56 days. That's 56 days of working 16+ hours a day, seven days a week, in often sweltering heat and choking humidity. Because of the limited availability of boats to transport people ashore, it took over seven hours to get the portion of our crew who weren't on duty ashore. I went out last night myself for a couple of hours and had a delicious meal at a place called "Alberto's."

Today, I hope to get ashore again sometime this afternoon, but first, I'm hosting a group of DV's (Distinguished Visitors) onboard for a tour of the ship.

Tomorrow, I'm going diving! That should be a blast!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Follow-Up on Eduardo & Andreas!

If you don't remember Eduardo and Andreas, look back at my Blog entry for Tumaco, Colombia. These were the two boys who were badly burned as infants and had grown up as abandoned children, begging for their existence.

These kids became instant celebrities onboard COMFORT for the 10 days they were with us! They took over the bridge, learnd about the magic of a soda fountain, and for the first time in their lives, knew what it was to be loved.

But now the COMFORT has moved on and we're currently bringing hope to the people of Nicaragua. But the change in the lives of Eduardo and Andreas isn't quite over yet. Today, we received the e-mail that I'll list below. The original was sent to one of our nurses on the ship who had worked with the boys (LT Cely), she in turn translated the essence of the e-mail and forwarded it on to the rest of the team. I'll include both e-mails below:

"From: Cely, Dinorah, LT
Sent: Monday, July 06, 2009 7:57 PM
To: Marino, Mark G., CDR
Subject: FW: SALUDOS


Just got an email from Maria Jesus. The best thing is that someone (the name below) in the US already has contacted her and has expressed her desire to become a godmother to Luis Eduardo and pay for his surgical procedures necessary. Maria Jesus has begun to contact a clinic in Bogota to make appt’s. I have family in Bogota and will contact them for possibly having them stay there. I am so happy!
The boys send their regards to the COMFORT family.


LT Cely

From: maria montenegro [mailto:marjm2002@yahoo.es]
Sent: Monday, July 06, 2009 9:33 PM
To: Cely, Dinorah, LT
Subject: SALUDOS

Ipiales, julio 6 de 2.009

Teniente CELLY
La saludo y le envìo mucho ànimo para continuar en la misiòn humanitaria, le envìo muchos saludos de los niños LUIS EDUARDO Y CAMILO ANDRES, se estàn recuperando favorablemente.
Algo positivo que le comento es que una señora de nombre ANGELICA MARIA HOYOS residente en los Estados Unidos se ha comunicado conmigo con el fin de expresar que desea apadrinar a LUIS EDUARDO y le quiere apoyar economicamente en las cirugias necesarias, por tanto ya hice el contacto con la clinica del quemado en Bogota y solicitarè cita para valoracion en Agosto cuando pienso viajar con los niños y si es necesario tendremos que ubicarlos temporalmente en hogares sustitutos en esa ciudad. Esto que le comento son realmente buenas noticias y se que a traves de Uds se nos abrieron muchas oportunidades de ayudar màs a los niños.
LUIS EDUARDO Y ANDRES CAMILO les envìan muchos saludos, tambien han manifestado que desean que les escriban.
ANDRES CAMILO expreña de sobremanera a KATTY y RICARDO de quienes no han recibido noticias.
Que la distancia no sea un obstàculo para olvidar a tan especiales personas, al contrario que fortalezcamos esos lazos de amistad a travès de la comunicacion.


If anyone else would like to participate in the care of these children, let me know and I'll pass your name along.

Nicaragua has been interesting! The seas, which have been so calm for so much of our trip are now showing just how easy it is for them to throw 69,000 metric tons of steel around! Oh well, I'll write about Nicaragua later!

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

La Union, El Salvador

We always eat well on COMFORT, but about once a month or so, we have some pretty special grub! Well this month, it was steak and lobster! Two of my very favorites!

That was delicious! Now I have the strength to go on with the blog!

La Union is a small town located in the Southwest portion of El Salvador, about a good stone’s throw from Honduras and Nicaragua. It is a beautiful part of the country with green EVERYWHERE!! We have a very aggressive medical mission here in El Salvador with a total of five medical site locations reaching from La Union up to San Miguel, nearly an hour by bus away.

During our time here in El Salvador, we were visited by Rear Admiral Dullea, the Deputy Commander of the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. I was able to escort her ashore as we together visited two of our medical sites. CAPT Ware (Hospital CO) and CAPT Negus (Mission Commander) met us when we arrived ashore and together we visited the sites.

This has been a challenging port for us. Due to the geography surrounding La Union and the lack of port services, we are forced to be anchored out with an 11 nautical mile small boat transfer to get ashore. We also have a significant current to deal with depending on the tides, so the trip ashore can take between an hour if the tides are with us, and nearly two hours if they’re not. The waterway is also full of floating debris (trees, logs, etc.) making small boat operations too dangerous to do at night. Typically, we would move about 140 people ashore daily by small boat. That amounts to two trips each for our two “Hospitality” boats. If we were to do that here, it would take us four hours to get those people ashore and another four hours to get them back, only leaving a few hours in the day to see patients. Another confounding factor, has been the sea state. Typically in the afternoon, the sea state rises and makes it dangerous to transfer people by small boat back to the ship. The bottom line is that this has been a very difficult mission site from a logistics perspective.

That hasn’t stopped our people from excelling!! For every problem, there has been a solution. For every difficulty, there have been devoted people who work through the issue and continue to do what we’re here to do: Help the people of La Union. Even though working in dangerous heat (today’s heat index is forecast to reach 130 degrees!), with no Air Conditioning, our medical and dental teams have done amazing work. Averaging over 1,900 patients per day, our hospital staff spends four days and three nights ashore before they are relieved and return to the ship for a brief respite.

So how has this been received by the people of La Union? Well the Mayor of the city presented the Key to the city to our Mission Commander, CAPT Negus. This is the first time (including a visit by President Hoover) that the Key has ever been presented to an American. But of course, we’re not here to collect accolades, we’re here to help people, train ourselves and our partners, and build relationships that hopefully will last a lifetime!