U.S. Naval Ships Becomes Floating Hospital in Latin America

A floating hospital longer than the Washington Monument is tall has begun its mission of medical diplomacy in Jamaica, its first stop among nine Caribbean and Latin American countries.

The converted oil tanker known as the United States Naval Ship Comfort is 894 feet long and carries more than 600 personnel. On board, staff has access to staples in any hospital operating room, including a blood-bank pharmacy, an intensive care unit, a CAT scan machine and even a dental ward.

The Comfort's commanding officer, U.S. Navy Capt. Brian C. Nickerson, told The Associated Press that the humanitarian mission allows military personnel to build stronger relationships with authorities in the region.

"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.

On its first day in Jamaica’s capital city Kingston, about 500 visitors came to the week-long clinic set up at the National Arena, an event space that was built for the British Empire and Commonwealth Games in 1963 and can hold 3,000 people. There will be another clinic set up at a separate location, which will also get about 500 visitors a day.

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Patients can get help in the form of eye exams and eye glasses. They can visit pediatricians, gynecologists and dentists. Useful and desperately needed aids such as walkers for the elderly and dentures are also available. 

About 150 surgical procedures will be performed on the ship for the week it spends in Jamaica.

Staff from the ship will also work to train and assist local health professionals. In addition, engineers will be working on construction projects, such as building schools.

The Comfort is one of the U.S. Navy's two hospital ships and can, in case of emergency, be diverted during the deployment.

This is not the first outreach to the area. In a similar diplomatic mission in 2007, the Comfort treated more than 98,000 people from 12 Caribbean and Latin American countries.

It has visited in times of crisis as well. In 1994, when U.S. troops were poised to remove a Haitian military regime, the USNS Comfort served as a 250-bed hospital for Cuban and Haitian migrants and personnel helped rebuild the local health care system.

Soni Sangha is a freelance writer based in New York City.

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