An enormous U.S. Navy hospital ship brought state-of-the-art medical care to Jamaica on Thursday, the first stop of a five-month good-will mission to nine countries in the Caribbean and Latin America.
The 894-foot (272-meter) white ship emblazoned with bright red crosses carries more than 600 personnel who will provide free surgical procedures, pediatric and dental care, and eye treatment to roughly 100,000 patients in nine countries, said U.S. Navy Capt. David K. Weiss, the ship's commanding officer for medical treatment.
In Kingston's harbor, dozens of patients strapped on life vests and boarded small boats to reach the anchored Comfort, a converted oil tanker with operating rooms, a blood bank, dental ward, pharmacy, intensive care unit and built-in oxygen lines running to the beds.
Dr. Melody Ennis, of Jamaica's Ministry of Health, said patients have been screened in advance and the Caribbean island will provide the appropriate follow-up care in coming weeks.
During a roughly 10-day stint in Jamaica, the Baltimore-based ship's staff and volunteers will also train local health providers, disburse donations, and repair a school in Trenchtown, a gritty Kingston ghetto where late reggae greats Bob Marley and Peter Tosh once lived.
The Comfort's commanding officer, U.S. Navy Capt. Brian C. Nickerson, said the
"This actually makes us better prepared when we have to come together in times of disaster," Nickerson said during a tour given to reporters shortly after the ship's arrival.
Nickerson said the U.S. Navy's annual humanitarian deployment to the region had nothing to due with countering leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's influence. "These are our neighbors. ... We should be able to work side by side," he said.
Medical diplomacy has long been practiced in the region, most notably by Cuba's communist government, which each year sends thousands of doctors to provide free care in poor countries in the region. Venezuela also funds many of these missions.
The Comfort is one of the U.S. Navy's two hospital ships. One of its primary missions is to treat the wounded during a war. During the Iraq War, it took on casualties while floating in the Persian Gulf.
The Comfort also docked in New York shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks in New York, providing housing for Ground Zero workers. And it provided care to thousands of Haitians after the Caribbean country's cataclysmic Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake.
After Jamaica, the Comfort sets sail for Peru. It also plans to visit Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Haiti before wrapping up its tour.
The hospital ship could be diverted if a major disaster strikes during the deployment, said U.S. Navy Capt. Kathy Becker, a native of Morgantown, Kentucky.