Military Matters by Steve Vogel

Getting to the Heart of a Medical Mission

Lt. Megan Zeller, an intensive care unit nurse, checks the vital signs of a patient while he recovers from surgery.
Lt. Megan Zeller, an intensive care unit nurse, checks the vital signs of a patient while he recovers from surgery. (By Mc3 Kelly E. Barnes -- U.s. Navy)
By Steve Vogel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 16, 2007

After her experiences treating war-wounded Marines at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Lt. j.g. Melissa McMurry was not expecting much emotion on her deployment aboard the hospital ship Comfort, now in a four-month humanitarian mission to Latin America.

But the Navy nurse learned otherwise during the ship's first foreign port of call, in Belize. Hector Carritos, a 2-year-old from Valley of Peace, was taken aboard the ship for surgery to repair a clubfoot, a birth defect that would have prevented him from walking properly.

"Seeing the surgery and the outcome was amazing," McMurry wrote last week in an e-mail. "All I could envision were the opportunities for this child later in life to actually function without pain and have some normalcy."

McMurry listened as the surgeon, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Eric Shirley, briefed the boy's mother after the successful operation and watched the look on her face turn from anxiety to relief.

"The emotional mixture of laughing and crying pretty much opened my eyes to the kind of life-altering things we are doing for people on this mission," McMurry wrote.

The USNS Comfort, home-ported in Baltimore and carrying medical staff from the Bethesda medical center and elsewhere, sailed from Norfolk on June 15. The 900-foot-long converted supertanker, white with huge red crosses painted on its side, is about halfway through its mission, meant to bolster U.S. ties with Latin America and the Caribbean.

The Comfort arrived in Peru on Aug. 6, after port calls in Belize, Guatemala, Panama, Nicaragua and El Salvador. Ahead are visits to Ecuador, Colombia, Guyana, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, and Haiti. By the time the mission ends in October, the Navy predicts the Comfort's personnel will have treated 85,000 patients and performed 1,500 surgeries.

The ship has about 780 people onboard, including roughly 500 medical personnel from the Navy, Air Force, Army, Coast Guard and Public Health Service.

Many have had experiences similar to McMurry's. "I never dreamed that I would have an experience of a lifetime," said Lt. Kristina Oliver, a Navy Nurse Corps officer who has spent three years treating injured service members at Bethesda.

"They love making a difference," Navy Capt. Robert E. Kapcio, the mission commander, told Pentagon reporters during a video teleconference from the ship Aug. 7. "A lot of people volunteered to come on this mission and give up their summer vacations and everything else to come on this deployment, and it's really what's made this mission special."

The Comfort is also carrying Navy Seabee engineers from Construction Battalion Maintenance Unit 202 from Little Creek, Va., as well as 15 members of the U.S. Navy Showband from Norfolk, who play at the many ceremonies marking the ship's tour.

The Comfort has spent about a week in each country. Once they have arrived at a port, doctors, nurses and other medical personnel generally travel each day by boat or helicopter to sites ashore, where they set up primary care sites, Capt. Bruce Boynton, commanding officer of the Comfort's 1,000-bed medical treatment facility, said at the Pentagon conference.

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