Navy Hospital Ship Mercy Returns from Healing Mission

The Navy hospital ship Mercy sailed into San Diego Bay on Sunday after helping the blind to see and the crippled walk again.

During their 4 1/2 -month deployment to Southeast Asia and Oceania, a crew of about 1,200 service members and civilians used the floating operating room to provide medical and dental care for more than 20,000 patients, including nearly 700 surgeries.

The 10th Pacific Partnership medical mission involved more than international goodwill. After a catastrophic tsunami in 2004, the Navy organized the annual humanitarian deployment to improve disaster response in the region.

Long-term infrastructure improvements and medical training facilitated by the Mercy crew, supporting organizations such as the University of California, San Diego and representatives from 10 nations will help many people.

But the most poignant memories aboard ship involved individual patients who received life-changing care during seven stops in Fiji, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, and Vietnam.

For Capt. Christopher Engdahl, the mission commander, it was the boy from Papua New Guinea who was blinded by thick cataracts.

Aboard the Mercy, a sign on his hospital bed warned: "Completely blind, take care." After opthamologists finished operating, they crossed it out and wrote "Not anymore."

"It was very touching," Engdahl said.

The deployment was filled with moments like that, he added.

"It's a tour unlike any I've been trained to do. I'm used to hunting submarines and defending aircraft carriers. But this has been such a wonderful humanitarian mission."

After hundreds of surgeries, they wished they could provide just one more.

"You give so much and you get so much back in return," he said. "Each country ... you want to stay longer. Because you see the help that you're doing."

That included knee and hip replacements for 13 people in Vietnam, under a new initiative. Cleft lip and cleft pallet surgery for 144 children conducted by Operation Smile, an international medical charity. And construction or renovation of 10 engineering projects, including school buildings, community centers, medical facilities and a youth center.

Cmdr. Marion Henry, a pediatric surgeon based at Naval Medical Center San Diego, at Balboa Park, served as director of surgical services.

"Our orthopedic surgeons did a lot of fracture revisions. Patients who have broken bones that heal improperly," Henry said. "They might not be able to walk, or have an arm they cannot use. Our surgeons were able to ... heal them again in a way that they are now functional, so they can contribute to their communities and they can be mobile on their own."

In the Philippines, their surgeons teamed with local military doctors to harvest bone from the leg of a soldier and reconstruct his jaw after a blast injury. The man had been on a feeding tube for months.

"He now will be able to eat and talk and move his jaw. That's a case where they didn't know what to do and we were able to assist them and train them how to do this procedure, so that now they would be able to do it also themselves," Henry said.

The exchange of information included tips for the visiting doctors on how to do the same procedures with fewer resources in a crisis. For instance, a surgeon in Papua New Guinea described how he used his foot to pump anaesthesia from a bag while he operated on a patient during a blackout.

Through close partnership with host nation medical staff, "We learned a lot from them and they learned a lot from us," Henry said.

Capt. Melanie Merrick, commanding officer of the medical treatment facility aboard the Mercy, said the ship's staff from Military Sealift Command swelled with the addition of hundreds of naval medical personnel who worked alongside local doctors and pharmacists.

Their focus this year was long-term development. "It's one thing to do a simple procedure for a person. It's a huge impact for that person. We still want to provide that, but what's it mean for the community? ... We went into hospitals and talked about different ways to maneuver the administrative piece of the hospital."

The U.S. military and State Department partners with allies who invite them because in the Pacific region, "It's not if a disaster will occur, but when," Merrick added. "Each of the countries we went to had a different level of infrastructure for the medical community."

The crowd gathered on the pier at Naval Base San Diego to welcome home about 600 sailors, Marines, and civilian mariners carried babies, bouquets of flowers and canine companions.

Relatives of Navy Lt. Jasmyne Avery, a critical care nurse whose parents were career sailors, flew in from the East Coast.

"It's her first deployment. We missed her a lot," said younger brother Justin Avery, of Arlington, Va., who brought balloons. "We're a Navy family."

Patricia Avery, of Baltimore, said she pitched in from across country by watching her daughter's "children," Dexter and Diamond. "We had my grand-dogs," she said. "I am so proud of my baby girl ... even though she's grown."

Jennifer Dolson brought her daughters dressed in stars and stripes to greet their father, Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Matthew Dolson. During the deployment, Ava, 2, kept asking "Mommy, where's Daddy?" Audrey, 11 months, would giggle and reach out to touch the screen when she saw his face on Skype.

"It's been a long four and a half months. It's always challenging, but you stay pretty busy with the little ones," Jennifer Dolson said. "You just gotta stay strong, because you know you're doing everything for a greater cause."

Other nations involved in the deployment were Australia, New Zealand, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Malaysia, Canada, and Timor Leste.

Aircraft from Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 21, which helped transfer patients to the Mercy during the deployment, returned home to Naval Air Station North Island on Saturday.

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