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Rare calm in Haiti as thousands seek free medical care from US Navy hospital ship

Jacqueline Charles, Miami Herald on

Published in News & Features

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- One man needed a hernia operation that he could not afford. A young girl came to seek help for her 3-year-old cousin whose skin was inexplicably covered with sores. And a mother of four needed help with a chronic allergy reaction.

They all took the chance to travel miles away from home to the Haitian Coast Guard base Killick this week in search of medical care from the U.S. Navy ship Comfort, the floating U.S. naval hospital that arrived Monday. It was a rare calm following two months of sustained protests, burning tires and impassable barricades.

"I already feel better"' Jean Seide, 47, said Thursday as he lay in a bed waiting to be wheeled into the operating room aboard the ship to treat a large hernia that he said has plagued him for years.

Two miles away on shore, Marie Sabrine Sempre, sitting underneath a tent with scores of other waiting patients, was equally hopeful.

"I found medicine from them before and it was good," she said, describing what appeared to be an allergic reaction. "So I came hoping they could help."

Haiti is the ship's 12th and final stop following a deployment that began in June in Ecuador.

Though the goal of the ship's mission was to relieve the health care stress placed on nations in the hemisphere by the crisis in Venezuela, the Haiti stop was a personal request from the country's U.S. ambassador, Michele Sison, according to the head of the U.S Southern Command, Adm. Craig Faller.

When Sison made the request earlier this year, Haiti was not yet in a protracted political crisis. Schools were still functioning, hotels were struggling but still open and Haitians weren't yet facing a disturbing humanitarian crisis.

"Haiti is going through a tough time," Sison told some of the more than 800 doctors, dentists, nurses and other medical professionals aboard the Comfort on Thursday. "If you haven't had the opportunity to get down to the Haitian Coast Guard base Killick, which is the medical site ... I want to tell you what we all saw down there touches the heart. There were over 1,000 people at the gates yesterday. They told me upwards of 3,000 today at the medical site."

The Comfort, she said, has brand recognition in Haiti, where the ship first visited in 2007 and again after the 2010 earthquake.

Faller, who arrived in the country Thursday as part of a three-country Caribbean tour and later met with President Jovenel Moise, called the outreach in Haiti "very powerful."


"It shows the power of an outstretched hand, the power of what we can do when we work together," he said. "Here in Haiti we've had the opportunity to see first hand the impact that it has made, changing lives forever."

During their time out to sea, the ship's crew, which includes medical professionals from other countries in the region, has treated more than 64,000 patients. That number will surely rise, with the crew expecting to see anywhere between 300 and 500 patients a day at the shore-based medical site in Haiti. Ship surgeons can conduct as many as 20 operations a day. On Thursday, the crew treated 599 patients. They also performed 15 surgeries. So far, a total of 1,380 Haitians have received free medical care.

And while some surgeries were prescreened prior to the visit, patients arriving at the medical site were also being flagged and screened to have surgery if they need it, said Comfort spokeswoman Lt. Mary Smith.

"We set out to treat people, make a difference, change lives," Faller said. "Some of the communities the ship has gone, the volume of patients the ship was able to see in a few days equal two to three months of flows through the local health care system."

While life timidly appeared to return to the capital Thursday, tensions still remain with barricades erected in some parts of Port-au-Prince and other cities around the country. Ahead of Faller's arrival from nearby Jamaica, several passengers in a mini-bus traveling near the presidential palace on the Champ-de-Mars were severely burned after the-bus was attacked and set on fire after a group of armed men demanded payment for passage, bus owner Johnny Pierre told Radio Caraibes. Police arrested three individuals in connection with the incident.

Sempre, the woman suffering from allergic reactions, said she is grateful, both for the Comfort and the tentative calm that has returned to parts of metropolitan Port-au-Prince. But she has no doubt the country's problems will remain after the ship leaves.

"The schools are destroyed, there is no school, no activities," she said. "There is no money. Everything is expensive. Poor people can't even eat."

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