News Story

Hospital Ship Staffed by Hundreds of Volunteer Medical Professionals Provides “Comfort” in Seven Countries

Volunteers from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are working alongside the United States Navy and other relief organizations as part of a humanitarian and medical training mission that is blessing the lives of thousands.

Aboard the USNS Comfort , a full-service medical hospital ship, Latter-day Saint volunteers are among those making stops in seven different countries in the Caribbean, South America and Central America on a mission called Continuing Promise 2009. At each stop, medical personnel and volunteers perform much-needed surgeries ranging from cleft palate reconstruction to cataract repair.

Dr. Susan Puls, Latter-day Saint volunteer medical coordinator, was asked to secure the volunteers for the mission in just two short weeks. “Finding the volunteers was far easier than I expected,” Puls said. “The Lord knew who He wanted to be involved in this important mission and just made sure those volunteers were available. Once I realized the Lord was in charge, it was a great comfort to know that the right people would be there when I needed them. Vacant spots were filled in a miraculous way.”

The ship is spending between 10 to 12 days at each of seven destinations: Haiti, Dominican Republic, Antigua, Colombia, Panama, Nicaragua and El Salvador.

Patients needing surgery are flown aboard the ship by helicopter where they are treated and remain for a short recovery. Meanwhile, additional volunteers travel to the shore in a 40-passenger boat each day to set up temporary clinics in schools and community centers. There they provide a variety of medical services to those who otherwise cannot afford it. To date, Continuing Promise 2009 personnel and volunteers have treated 56,000 people and have performed nearly 1,000 surgeries. Over 90,000 operations and procedures will be performed before the mission ends 31 July 2009.

Of the 650 medical professionals on board, 50 are civilian volunteers, a third of whom are members of the Church. Over the duration of the mission, volunteers rotate in as other volunteers leave. In all, more than 40 Latter-day Saint volunteers will serve aboard the Comfort.

For these Latter-day Saints, time aboard the Comfort provides an opportunity to work with other humanitarian organizations and the ministries of health in the countries visited. Full-time Church missionaries serving in the nations visited by the Comfort act as interpreters and help coordinate logistics. In the Dominican Republic alone, 25 full-time missionaries provided translation for doctors and other medical practitioners at on-shore clinics.

Many volunteers found their interaction with patients both touching and humbling. Janette Lewis, a registered nurse, considered herself fortunate to be in the operating room nurse for Andrés, a 10-year-old boy who had come aboard for scar revision surgery.

At age 4, Andrés and his two younger brothers were badly burned in a flash explosion at a gasoline station. The family tried to care for the boys but was unable to do so. Initially left on the streets to fend for themselves, the boys are now in state care.

“Despite the horrific lives these boys have lived, you could not find happier children,” Lewis said. “Smiles, hugs, kisses, fun, warmth and love constantly come from these children, and they have stolen the hearts of everyone on board.”

Aboard the Comfort, Andrés’ medical team was remarkably successful in removing massive scar tissue and then replacing it with healthy new skin grafts.

Just before Andrés’ release, Janette was again assigned to be his nurse and was there when his neck brace was removed. “When I entered the ward, Andrés ran up to me and gave me a great big hug and gave me a thank you note,” Lewis said. “It was so touching. To be part of this miracle in process is wonderful. This is what we came here for.”

“I have the wonderful perspective of being able to watch people of faith, driven by their faith, do good things for other people,” said Command Chaplain David Oravec.

In addition to coordinating volunteers, the Church has donated nearly 250 pallets of humanitarian relief supplies, including medical resources, vitamins, hygiene kits, newborn kits, school kits, orphanage supplies, quilts, toys, first aid kits and blankets. These supplies have been donated to various organizations throughout the participating countries.

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