NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY/AP) — The U.S. Navy hospital ship USNS Comfort deployed Friday morning for a five-month medical assistance mission in 11 countries of the Americas affected by Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis.
The goal of the mission is to help relieve pressure on medical systems in countries hosting thousands of Venezuelans who fled their country in search for a better way of life.
The ship will visit countries including Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Grenada, Haiti, Jamaica, Panama, Saint Lucia, St. Kitts and Nevis, and Trinidad and Tobago.
Navy officials said the Comfort will carry a crew of up to 1,000 military doctors and nurses, plus a civilian crew that operates the ship.
Jon Smoak and Olivia Nuzzo met on the USNS Comfort in 2017 while helping with the Puerto Rico recovery. The two fell in love and married in February 2019.
Nuzzo, an ER and flight nurse, deployed on the same ship Friday morning to help with the crisis.
“I’m sure she is very excited to go out there and help people. This will be one of the first times she will use her flight nurse qualification,” Smoak said. “It’s going to be over sooner than she knows it. I’ll take care of the dogs and working.”
Veronica Ruiz said this is her son’s first deployment, he wants to help and heal people.
“I am proud but I miss him already. Very proud,” Ruiz said.
Capt. Kevin Buckley, commanding officer of the Military Treatment Facility, said the team expects to see at least 500 cases a day at each stop, though weather and transportation of the patients could affect the final figures.
Buckley said the health ministries in each of the countries are vetting the patients who will receive care. Most will involve low-risk surgeries such as cataract, laparoscopic cholecystectomy and hernia repairs.
This will be the 7th deployment for the hospital since 2007. Vice President Mike Pence announced the mission last month.
“This deployment responds directly to the man-made crisis Maduro’s regime has created,” said U.S. Navy Adm. Craig Faller, commander of U.S. Southern Command, which will oversee the deployment. “Comfort medical teams will be working alongside host nation medical professionals who are absorbing thousands of Venezuelan migrants and refugees.”
Military doctors will give medical, dental and eye exams mainly on land, but some migrants will be allowed on board for surgery.
Friday’s deployment is part of the Caribbean 2020 Strategy to strengthen the relationship between the U.S. and the Caribbean.