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2nd June 2016

Floating hospital saves lives on the seas

A former oil tanker with 700 doctors, 5,000 units of blood and 12 operating rooms, this ship is as well-equipped as a large hospital

The sheer size of the USNS Comfort and its sister ship, the Mercy is impressive: they are as high as 10-storey office blocks and as long as three football pitches.

These repurposed oil tankers have been kitted out to the highest standards, allowing them to bring mobile medical services ranging from paediatrics to cardiology, general surgery or dentistry, together with specialists more commonly associated with major hospital campuses.

As well as providing on-board care, the large team of medics can dock and set up make-shift hospitals on land, converting unused gymnasiums into clinics.

Access all areas

For people like Marleen Maxwell, the USNS Comfort brought services which are hard to access through the healthcare system in her hometown of Kingston, Jamaica.

Marleen, aged 56, has suffered for eight years with an overactive thyroid and waited three years for surgery. The thyroid is a gland near the windpipe which produces hormones, but an overactive thyroid produces too much hormone and can cause discomfort and disturbed sleep.

“It hurts,” Marleen says. “And sometimes you feel it come up like it blocks the airway.”

When the Comfort landed at Kingston, she was happy to board the ship for an operation to remove her enlarged gland in the floating hospital’s fully-equipped surgical theatre.

The procedure – which was performed by US doctors in collaboration with local surgeons from Kingston, took several hours but all went to plan and Marleen returned home the next day. Doctors at local hospitals can provide any follow-up care that may be required.For Marleen’s nurse, Kimberly Stoops, the reward of helping patients in need compensates for the months spend away from home on the high seas. “It’s hard to be away but it’s also great … knowing that we’re doing really good work here,” said Stoops. “You have those days where you really miss home and then you come in and see someone’s smiling face like Marleen and it really brings you up again.”

Mission accomplished

Marleen was just one of the 100,000 patients treated during the ship’s humanitarian mission – Continuing Promise – which involved sailing around south and central America, as well as several destinations in the Caribbean.

Along its 11-stop journey, the ship brought first-world medical services to low- and middle-income countries where access to health professionals and modern medical technologies is lacking.

At each of its 11 destinations, the crew leaves behind up to 40 pallets of medical supplies. As the ship sails away over the horizon, its impact continues back on land.