NEW HAVEN, Conn. (AP) - Ruth Setaro knew the man was trying to convey a serious problem.
There was a language barrier that made communication difficult, but eventually she learned he had failed to get his asthma medication before boarding a ship as a crew member near the Panama Canal.
“He needed a nebulizer. He had three or four incidents over two weeks where he couldn’t breathe,” she said.
“I told the captain, ‘this man is going to die if he doesn’t get attention,’” Setaro said.
She was able to get him off the vessel with a medical parole and take him to occupational therapy, which was then part of the Hospital of Saint Raphael. “His oxygen capacity was almost nothing,” Setaro said.
After a few days, he was well enough to return to work, rather than being sent home to the Philippines and losing his job.
Setaro has hundreds of stories about the crews she has met in the last two decades after their ships have docked in the deep-water ports in New Haven and New London.
A chaplain with the Seafarers International House, which is a mission of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Setaro also supervises seven other chaplains who assist crews from Connecticut to Baltimore.
In 2013, they boarded over 2,200 merchant ships on the Eastern Seaboard, visiting more than 22,400 seafarers on their vessels. The chaplains logged more than 5,000 van trips that year in order to transport 14,315 seafarers looking for goods onshore.
Setaro said she is not ordained and the organization does not evangelize, although the Rev. Ryan Mills, pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church Pastor on Orange Street, has officiated at services on ships docked in New Haven, when requested.
“I’m available to do anything we can to help these people,” said Setaro, 70, whose schedule varies on any given day.
Setaro, a resident of North Haven, likes to remind people that 90 percent of the goods we use every day arrived here by ship.
“That’s something that people don’t realize. You put gas in your tank. Where did that come from? You put a banana on your cereal. Where did that come from? Look at your clothes. Where did they come from? They all came on a ship,” she said.
Rose George, a British journalist, wrote a popular book on the topic, “Ninety Percent of Everything,” and has given a TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) talk on it.
These vessels generally arrive weekly at the New Haven Port; 68 made the stop in fiscal 2014, 13 unloaded in the New London Port and 10 in the Bridgeport Port.
With the economy turning around, New Haven already has had 43 ships dock here through mid-March; seven in New London and five in Bridgeport, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Last week, her red 12-passenger Freightliner Sprinter van, with more than 150,000 miles on it, brought a crew of Ukrainians, who served as the officers, and Filipinos, who staffed the other jobs, to shopping trips in the area.
The first stop is always the T-Mobile store in North Haven at Exit 9 off Interstate 91, where they buy SIM cards and other things they need for their mobile devices in order to talk with their families.
Igor Smyrnov, 56, chief engineer on the Thorco Atlantic, which brought railroad ties destined for Canada, started his four-month contract at Las Palmas in the Canary Islands before heading to pick up cargo in Italy.
He said the seaman’s life “has many pluses and many minuses.” He used to work eight months at sea and then eight months home. His new schedule of four and four “is much better.”
Smyrnov said there are greater educational opportunities in Ukraine than those available to the Filipino seamen, which could help them move up the ranks.
After T-Mobile, Smyrnov was on the hunt for Levi’s. He referred to America as the “country of jeans.”
Walking through the parking lot near T-Mobile, after 10 weeks at sea, the occasional tree in bloom in a sea of asphalt was a welcome sight. “Trees and flowers- it’s a nice view,” he said.
Setaro made at least four trips escorting portions of the small 11-member crew over multiple days.
She knows all the large 24-hour shopping centers, driving those getting off a late shift to the Walmart Supercenter in Wallingford or heading to the McDonald’s on Main Street in East Haven when one crew needed an order of 30 hamburgers.
“We have a saying: When you have seen one ship, you have seen one ship,” Setaro said of the variety of encounters.
Setaro said many of the seafarers speak English and have visas that allow them to leave the port. She said it is tough for those who can’t disembark.
“It’s a hard, lonely life,” she said, with not many amenities to engage them for those long stretches at sea.
Most of the vessels she boards have crews of 21 workers where often those on the early shift won’t even know the men on the second shift.
The practical help of providing transportation is appreciated, but the job goes beyond that,
“Sometimes they just need someone to listen,” Setaro said.
“They miss everything. One of them said to me, ‘I have been married 10 years and in those 10 years I have been home maybe one year,’” split up over a month here and there, she said.
The crews represent an international community, with seafarers from China, Myanmar, Spain, Germany, Scotland, the Philippines and Korea. She even met some from Tuvalu, a Polynesian island nation located in the Pacific Ocean, midway between Hawaii and Australia.
Setaro said their happiest day is when they finish their contract and are ready for a flight home.
New Haven was the second-to-last stop for Abmel Jun Loyola, 27, who has been at sea for 10 months as the cook on the Thorco Atlantic, where he prepared two cuisines daily to satisfy the Ukrainian and Filipino crew members.
The father of 5-year-old twin girls, he has yet to meet his 2-month-old daughter, born while he was away. He was making a stop at Babies R Us before going home.
His friend, Jayson Sabio, 30, said the long stints on the ship can be difficult. “It is very hard for us. Sometimes sad because you are thinking about your family,” he said.
Setaro said on another vessel, a crew member stayed behind to talk to her. She said he appeared to be suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome. A previous ship he was on was stopped by pirates, and the experience had left him rattled.
Setaro said the rest of his new crew couldn’t relate to it and didn’t want to hear about it.
The difficulty of being separated from a spouse is a major issue that the seafarers stress over.
One Scottish sailor said when he returns to his home, everyone has adjusted to new schedules and he is not a part of that.
“I don’t belong there. I’m lower than the dog,” he told her.
She has listened as young seafarers contemplate getting out of the profession, but are torn by guilt when family members expect them to work to provide for the education of younger siblings.
“It’s another world. We can’t imagine. They sacrifice all this to give their families a better life at home,” Setaro said.
She helped a Russian captain by taking him to medical supply houses to find a lift for his severely disabled son.
The chaplain has stayed with seafarers who have been left behind while treated for medical problems, visiting them daily in the hospital, and in January she helped a crew deal with the death of a seaman.
The 43-year-old crew member had a heart attack and died on the M/V F. D. Angelica on its maiden voyage from Singapore. She said when it docked in New Haven, they requested a funeral service from Mills, who also blessed the ship and each of the rooms that the deceased seafarer had frequented.
Prone to superstition, the crew feared that their crewmate’s soul would not rest in peace, she said. The visit gave Mills and Setaro the opportunity to provide grief counseling.
There are fun times, too, when crews stay long enough to get to know them better. She will hear from these people from time to time who are grateful for her help.
Setaro, who said the crews often refer to her as “Mom,” has no plans to retire.
“As long as I can climb on a gangway, I’m hoping to keep going. I think I have the best job in the world. I don’t even like to call it a job,” Setaro said, as she waited to hear about the next ship coming into a Connecticut port.
Information from: New Haven Register, https://www.nhregister.com
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