Por Espanol: Promesa Continua 2009 -- USNS Comfort

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

A new school for Villa Nueva, Nicaragua

CAPT Tom Negus, CP09 Mission Commander:

The heat was severe, the work never ending, but the end was all that mattered. Under the baking heat of the Nicaraguan sun, UT1 Faulds and his team of Seabees kept hammering, kept wiring, kept working on. For ten days his team endured these conditions as they slowly, methodically, yet always professionally replaced over 8,000 square feet of new roofing on the village school in the town of Villa Nueva, Nicaragua. I had the honor to visit them a few days into their work, and was privileged to participate yesterday in a ribbon-cutting ceremony celebrating the finished job.

What I remember from my first visit was the incredible heat up on the roof as they placed sheet after sheet of corrugated roofing over the trestles they reinforced. I remember the expanse of the school, and thinking to myself that perhaps they bit off more than they could chew with this job (of course, they certainly proved me wrong!). I remember the picture of Fidel Castro still posted to one of the school house walls. And I remember the attitude of all of the Seabees-one of calm professionalism and pride in what lay before them.

Yesterday at the ribbon cutting was a different matter altogether—Seabees were there, as always, sweaty and proud, standing in ranks beneath the omni-present heat. So was the US Ambassador, Robert Callahan, along with the Mayor of Villa Nueva, and the Mayor of neighboring Somotillo. There was a large number of press, and many cameras, and even more microphones to record all of our respective remarks. But what struck me most about yesterday were the school children, dressed in their clean white uniforms, sitting and watching, wandering through the much cooler interior of their new school thanks to the insulating tiles the Seabees installed beneath the new roof.

Some were playful, some pensive—but all were there to see their new school, with a new roof, and new doors, and new paint, and new wiring and new fans in each classroom . I watched some boys play basketball with a deflated volleyball on the central court where the Seabees had installed new basketball goals, I watched some girls as they walked a couple paces behind the “official party” as UT1 showed the Ambassador, the principal, and the Mayor his team’s work.

There is a new school in Villa Nueva, and though all the adults present know and could see the changes that had come in the ten days of work, it was these children who absorbed the most—this was to be their home where their dreams, their choices, and their character will be forged over the coming years. I think they knew more than we, the impact this work would have on their lives.

As I turned to leave for the final time, a sadness descended as I ruminated that our CONTINUING PROMISE mission was nearly complete. Then I heard the children laughing, and realized that the gift that these Seabees gave will not so quickly fade. For there is a new school in Villa Nueva, and these children will not let their dreams die.

HOPE Comes Full Circle in Latin America

LTGJ Hussein

USNS Comfort (T-AH 20)

As LTJG Hussein Rawji gently lifts his MH-60S Knighthawk helicopter off the flight deck, the pitch and roll of the huge ship beneath him becomes immediately more apparent. He quickly gains altitude to get away from the moving landing pad, and speeds away with a team of Project HOPE volunteers in the jumper seats behind him. They quickly near the remote town of Corinto, Nicaragua, leaving the white hull and giant red crosses of the USNS Comfort, the Navy’s floating hospital, far behind.

The team of doctors, nurses, and midwives volunteering with Project HOPE (Health Opportunities for People Everywhere) who are on Lt. Rawji’s helicopter are following a tradition of partnership and co-operation with the US Navy that spans 50 years—back to their namesake, the SS HOPE. The Navy/HOPE team was formed five decades ago, when in 1958 the Navy delivered an ex-supply ship to the infant non-governmental organization (NGO), to be refitted as a hospital ship, the SS Hope, to deliver free health care to the underserved citizens of Latin America and the world.

Hussein has been flying HOPE volunteers all over Latin America for the last three months on the joint Navy/NGO operation Continuing Promise--throughout Haiti, Colombia, Panama, El Salvador. But for Rawji, this flight to Nicaragua is special. It completes a generational circle he couldn’t have dreamed of when he joined the Navy.

Hussein, whose grandparents moved from India to Tanzania, where his parents and he were born, moved to the Miami with his family when he was in high school. He joined the Navy right after graduation, and due to his excellent performance and attitude, was selected to be commissioned as an Officer in 2002. About this time, he made a trip back to Miami to visit his family and met Yesenia Escorcia, the woman who would become his wife three years later. She had moved to Miami from afar as well, coming there with her family as a two-year old.

As Hussein started flight school in 2006, flying in Latin America didn’t even register as a possibility, much less flying in Nicaragua, the land of Yesenia’s heritage.

Yet, here he is, providing high-tech Navy transportation to these HOPE volunteers in rural Corinto, Nicaragua. These volunteers will perform minor and major surgeries, see hundreds of patients, and write thousands of prescriptions—the same work that Yesenia Rawji’s mother, Vilma, did here in Corinto…while she was working onboard the SS Hope nearly 40 years ago.

Project HOPE’s original project, the SS Hope, made a tour of Latin America in the late 1960’s, and stopped here in Corinto. While there, they asked the local medical community for help in delivering primary care and distributing the donated medical supplies. Vilma answered their call, and became one of the earliest HOPE volunteers.

40 years later, having had a daughter, emigrated from her country, and seen her daughter married, Vilma’s legacy of volunteerism, medical aid, and care live on in the next generation.

The ashore landing pad comes into view, and Hussein brings the helo quickly down. As soon as the HOPE volunteers are away, he rises up again and reverses his course—back to the Comfort for the next team of medical professionals ashore. The volunteers squint their eyes to see the helo receding, and as the sound of its steady blades clears the air, they turn towards Corinto—and continue a generation’s worth of work.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Two Perfect Gifts on the Fourth of July on COMFORT

Capt. Tom Negus

CP09 Mission Commander:

As millions of Americans celebrated the 4th of July in traditional ways back home in the States, this signature day was yet another work day for the CONTINUING PROMISE team. We were fortunate to have visiting with us that day the US Surgeon General, RADM Steven Galson, but otherwise it was another work day for us here visiting the Western coast of Nicaragua.
As I toured the sites that day with CAPT James Ware, the Commanding Officer of the Hospital onboard USNS COMFORT and the Surgeon General, I was struck by how appropriate it was that we were working on this Fourth of July day. It seems to me that when we celebrate the Fourth of July, we are celebrating the genius of our forefathers who in their wisdom and perseverance established a social order fundamentally based upon the inherent dignity of the individual. And as I toured our various medical sites dotted around western Nicaragua—that is exactly what I saw in the CONTINUING PROMISE team—respect and compassion from all the medical professionals that approached each individual before them with inherent dignity and concern.
Though the lines were long, and the heat was sweltering, people came from all over the region to be seen by our caring physicians. Each one was accepted with grace and compassion, and I was moved by the simplicity and purity of each encounter. No questions were asked about political party affiliation (apparently quite an issue in Nicaragua), religion, color of skin, or even whether they had shoes on their feet (most did not). All were accepted with the same compassion and concern as every other; and I thought to myself that this truly is one of the finest celebrations of the Fourth of July that I have ever seen…this demonstrated character of compassion that treats all with equality, all with respect, all with inherent dignity so deserved of each individual. A beautiful and perfect gift, I thought, to mark the 4th of July.
That night back aboard ship, as is our daily custom, we recognize a "Person of the Day" as selected by the CP09 Chiefs' Mess. The selection that day was Technical Sergeant Gwin-Goodin--the vocalist for our Air Force band. After receiving her certificate, coin, and requisite photo's, the crew coaxed her into singing a song--and she broke out into the most beautiful rendition of "God Bless America" any of us had ever heard. Very few dry eyes were found in the room during the standing ovation as she finished giving us the second perfect 4th of July gift of the day.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Comfort veterinarians begin work in Nicaragua

Roberta Hughes,
USNS Comfort

Note: USNS Comfort is now in Nicaragua. The veternarians are hard at work treating the animals here in support of Continuing Promise 2009.

We are getting a lot of good receptivity with the rabies pamphlets, and I see people reading them at every place we go. The animals here are very thin and have poor hair coats. The horses are small in body size, and the same goes for the dogs and cats. Sometimes I think I am dealing with a kitten or puppy, and in reality it is an adult.

The cattle seem to be in a bit better condition, although some of them are thin as well. Many farmers don't have adequate pasture for their cattle to graze, so they take them to graze by the side of the roads and other common areas. I haven't seen much quality grass here; instead, the cattle are eating broad-leafed plants and weeds.

The pigs, on the other hand, seem fairly well fleshed.

The Surgeon General of the United States made a brief visit to the ship to learn about Operation Continuing Promise and visited us at our work site.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Comfort says farewell to El Salvador

We celebrated a very well organized and precisely executed closing ceremony yesterday on the Naval Base in La Union, El Salvador. Highlighting the significance placed on the event, and on the CONTINUING PROMISE mission, the Salvadoran participants included their Minister of Defense, General Mungeya Payes; their Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Colonel Silva Alvalos; and their CNO, Captain Jimenez. Their President was unfortunately already scheduled to attend the inauguration of the new Panamanian president and was unable to attend, but sent his regards.

I’ve provided the comments I provided to the participants, audience, and people of El Salvador to give some context for what we are trying to accomplish on our Continuing Promise mission:

“Distinguidos invitados y amigos de El Salvador.
Buenos Dias,

From the very first day of our arrival we have been captivated by El Salvador, first by the beauty of the land as we glided gently to our anchorage—perhaps as your history tells us over treasure sunken from long ago; and then as we came ashore and uncovered the real treasure in the hearts of the Salvadorans we met. That is the magic of CONTINUING PROMISE…working side by side with partners, helping, learning, and ultimately experiencing the “metanoia” (Spanish for ‘transformation in attitude of heart’) that changes neighbors into friends. That is what has happened here in El Salvador.

For CONTINUING PROMISE is a tangible demonstration of our commitment to our neighbors in the region—a commitment that is strong, sustained, meaningful, and based upon mutual respect. You could say that commitment is as strong as the steel of the magnificent ship COMFORT, but we both know now, that the true strength of our commitment lies in the hearts of all the people involved.

We have been honored to work side by side with the Ministry of Health, supported by the Ministry of Defense, as we sought to provide the very best in medical, dental, veterinary, engineering and educational services with our friends from El Salvador and for our friends in El Salvador. We could not have been successful without your help.

Of course, the US Navy did not do this alone: we are partnered with and give great thanks to those who have provided health care professionals and educators from Project HOPE, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, University California San Diego Pre-Dental Society, Project Handclasp, and Rotary International. In addition to the services provided, the Continuing Promise team working with local humanitarian organizations donated 105 pallets to those in need in El Salvador. Their efforts show that the whole is certainly greater than the sum of our parts.

We are proud too to have served with international CONTINUING PROMISE teammates from Antigua and Barbuda, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Dominican Republic, The Netherlands, Nicaragua, Panama, and of course: El Salvador.

My great friend Alcalde Cruz, Mayor of La Union, asked me if I might return to El Salvador, but his question is unnecessary. After seeing the beauty and the spirit of the people, I—and all of us – will always leave a piece of our hearts in this beautiful country of El Salvador.

On behalf of CAPT Jim Ware, our Medical Treatment Facility Commanding Officer and CAPT Tom Finger, the Captain of the Hospital ship COMFORT and the entire CONTINUING PROMISE team, we deeply appreciate all of the grace, kindness, and hospitality you have shown us throughout our stay.

Though we arrived to your country 11 days ago as neighbors, we are proud and honored now to say that we depart as friends.

Que les vaya bien y muchas gracias.”

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Miracles happen everyday...

Capt. Thomas Negus

Mission Commander


I want to tell you a story that a Doctor from Project HOPE shared with me the other day...A woman brought her 7 month old son into a medical site a couple of days ago for evaluation and consideration for cleft palate surgery. Understanding the impact that a cleft palate would have on the trajectory of this young boy's life, the mother was very anxious that her baby might obtain corrective surgery. Unfortunately, since we had already been in El Salvador for a number of days, all of the surgical time available was booked up. The mother did not know this...while she patiently waited in line carrying her dreams for the future in her arms, she had no way of knowing that the odds were already greatly stacked against her. Yet she persisted, waiting for several hours in the long lines that generally form well before the medical sites are opened.

The mother finally made it into the site, where her baby was carefully checked in, weighed, measured by our on-site corpsmen and volunteers, and directed to the appropriate station for evaluation by a doctor. The mother held the baby in her arms as she sat at the desk that served as the doctor's office, describing her hopes for her son, while the doctor gently examined the young baby. He was very professional and compassionate when he explained that surgery would correct his cleft palate, but that he wasn't sure that there was any more surgical time available. He wanted to make sure that he didn't unnecessarily raise the mother's hopes against the long odds she unknowingly faced. Leaving the mother waiting, he hesitatingly consulted the OR administrators to check the remote possibility that there might somehow be an opening with the surgeons who perform this life-altering surgery. The doctor returned and, when he saw mother and child sitting at the desk with all the hopes of the world wrapped up in that tiny bundle, he said he had to wait several moments to compose himself before he could utter the words "Yes, we have room for your son".

Against all calculations, against all estimates, by a strange and wonderful combination of events, there happened to be one last opening. It was waiting for the precious baby from La Union, whose life will be forever changed thanks to the loving persistence of his mother and the miraculous surgical slot held open just for him.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Luis Eduardo and Andres

LT Cely, USNS Comfort

These adorable young boys, 12 and 10 years, arrived on our ship in Tumaco. I met them while they were in disbelief they had front seats to Juanes’s concert on the flight deck. This was the beginning of 11 days of adventure. They were our guests at the Hotel/2FWD and many times I had to ask myself: Who is having more fun… us or the kids. After learning a little bit of their rough journey thus far on earth, we were able to understand why they were having so much fun with us. How can two boys that have endured so much, seem so happy and be so loveable to strangers? That’s when I was reminded of how pure kids are, how they sense people that are genuine and open to give love unconditionally.
Luis Eduardo was burned at the age of 10 months. He never had a stable home environment, and moved from family member to family member. For a few years his mother used him to beg for money in the streets. A foundation found him and taught him to read, but this didn’t last long since it ran out of money and closed. He fell back into the streets and begged until about 6 months ago when “El Bienestar Familiar” found him and placed him in a foster home.
Andres was burned at the age of 5 while living with his brother and sister under a bridge. His mom works the streets and father is in prison and so they lost custody of the children. It has been about 4 years since Andres and his siblings have been in foster care with the same family.
Maria Jesus, their social worker, worked with the Ministry of health to have them seen at the Max Seidel school upon our arrival. Both were seen on the 1st day, were brought on Sunday since they came six hours by car, with surgery scheduled for Thursday and Friday respectively.
Our attachment w/ the boys was instantaneous. They were the only patients in our unit for a couple of days and got alot of one- to-one care. Before you knew it, they felt very comfortable with all the staff, and we took them everywhere on the ship, so they could have a little change in their environment. This turned into taking them for lunch and dinner to the galley, getting entire tours of the ship, getting into the helicopters, flight deck, bridge and tower, and sitting on the Captains Chair.
I felt that these 11 days with us were life-changing for the boys, while also leaving a footprint in the heart of those of us who shared so much with them. Luis Eduardo made sure that he let us know the following words which I will never forget: “I have never been given so much love in my life… Thank you”. Seeing them off on the flight deck was very challenging, since both couldn’t stop crying and didn’t want to leave. As I saw them walk away into the helicopter, my heart ached and yet I felt so proud to have had those two little souls come into our lives and having been able to bring so much joy into their lives. It reminded me that many times in life so much can be given with so little.
I received an E-mail thanking the Comfort for all that was done for the boys. Both were discharged from the military facility after an agonizing week of physical therapy which Luis Eduardo described as “hell”. The post operative care and physical therapy received was excellent as described by Maria Jesus. Both are back in their foster homes in Ipiales. I look forward to continuing my communication with them via E-mail. Thankfully with my frequent trips to Colombia, I hope to visit them in the future as well.