NORFOLK (AP) — A converted oil tanker commissioned to serve the medical needs of the Navy is bound for the Caribbean and Central and South America, where the crew will provide medical care to 85,000 patients in 12 countries.
The USNS Comfort shoved off Friday from a pier at Norfolk Naval Station on the ship's first foreign humanitarian mission. The Baltimore-based ship had been docked in Norfolk since May 31 for final preparations.
The 800-member crew includes about 500 medical personnel specializing in disciplines including general, plastic, pediatric and oral surgeries.
"This deployment provides an opportunity for us to work together with countries in the region to make a lasting contribution across our hemisphere," said Adm. James G. Stavridis, who heads the U.S. Southern Command. "Comfort's mission will reach far beyond the patients we will see each day."
The Comfort is expected to be deployed through September and will visit Belize, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, Suriname, and Trinidad and Tobago.
The mission is part of Partnership of the Americas 2007, an effort to improve relations with Latin American countries and the Navy's readiness in the region, said Capt. Bruce Boynton, commanding officer of the Comfort's medical corps.
Members of the Army, Air Force and Coast Guard are on board for training.
The Comfort will spend about a week either in port or anchored off the shore of each country it visits.
"We match our capabilities to what people need," Capt. Boynton said. "We can do primary care at sites throughout the country. Others are brought on board."
The ship can accommodate up to 1,000 patients at once, including 80 in intensive care. It has 12 operating rooms and four X-ray rooms.
Cataract surgery, gallbladder removal, knee repairs, hernias and scar removal are expected to be the most common procedures, Capt. Boynton said. The crew is unable to perform extensive surgeries, such as transplants and heart bypasses.
Comfort's crew will be a partner with nongovernmental organizations already working in the region, including Norfolk-based Operation Smile, a medical charity that provides free surgery to children abroad born with facial deformities.
Operation Smile can transport patients to the United States for major treatment requiring long recovery times.
"The Comfort's services are important, but they are short-term," said Kathleen Magee, co-founder of the organization. "We already have people in these countries, and we can follow up and do what we need to do long after the ship is gone."
The estimated $20 million mission is a test model for future humanitarian endeavors.