By Sharon Renee Taylor
Walter Reed National Military Medical Center
BETHESDA, Md., July 6, 2015 – “Even in the middle of the ocean, the ‘spirit of jointness’ is alive,” Army Capt. Rory Walton wrote from the high seas of the Caribbean.
The operating room nurse assigned to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center is one of 43 Walter Reed staffers aboard the hospital ship USNS Comfort, deployed for the Continuing Promise 2015 humanitarian mission to Central America, the Caribbean and South America.
The mission is a U.S. Southern Command-sponsored and U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command/U.S. 4th Fleet-conducted deployment focused on civil-military operations. It includes providing medical, dental, veterinary and engineering support, along with disaster response preparation, to partner nations.
Walton joined the ship April 1 in Norfolk, Virginia, for a six-month deployment. She called it a “unique opportunity” to continue developing Walter Reed’s interoperability with sailors, airmen and Public Health Service members.
Sharing Best Practices and Ideas
“Having the opportunity to work together with our friends and partners in this mission setting allows for the sharing of best practices and ideas,” she said. “It further enables all of us to build partner capacity and promote collaboration [and] partnerships in order to meet challenges together and prepare for future missions, contingencies and response efforts.”
In addition to Walton and other nurses, Walter Reed National Military Medical Center also deployed a general surgeon, a pediatric surgeon, a plastic surgeon and several surgical residents, along with corpsmen to support the mission. An obstetrician-gynecologist who also is part of the group assisted many women on the Comfort’s stop in Jamaica.
Navy Capt. (Dr.) Christine Sears, commander of the USNS Comfort Medical Treatment Facility, often works in tandem with the Comfort’s operating room staff for complex pelvic surgery cases. Sears has an extensive background of service with Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, having completed a fellowship and served as a staff urologist and as executive assistant to Navy Rear Adm. (Dr.) Alton L. Stocks, who commanded the medical center.
“Women’s health continues to be very important to all of the host nations that we are visiting during our CP-15 mission,” Walton said. “Our gynecological surgery team has been inundated with patients at all of our completed mission stops.”
More Stops Remain
The Comfort medical team performed surgery in Belize, Guatemala, Jamaica, Nicaragua and Panama, Walton said. After completing work at the sixth mission stop in El Salvador, she added, five mission stops still remain: Columbia, Dominica, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Honduras.
“As a team, we begin each country the same,” Walton explained. “We stage our surgical supplies and pre-plan each mission stop. Because surgery uses a significant amount of resources and consumable supplies, this is no small feat. Upon entry to the country, we immediately set up a surgical screening site in coordination with each country’s ministry of health.”
The Comfort arrives to crowds of potential patients, said Walton, who specializes in open-heart surgery. Over the next two days, she said, the team screens and books up to 100 patients for surgery.
“Because certain health conditions and comorbidities can disqualify someone for surgery, it is important we maintain a high standard to ensure the safety of those in our care,” she said. “We work together with the host nation, Ministry of Health representatives and medical professionals to educate and support one another to ensure our efforts run in tandem with their needs.”
Hypertension and proper management of diabetes are common issues the Comfort team addresses with the host nation and health partners, Walton said. “When caring for patients, we continue to be compassionate, yet sensible, when addressing their health concerns in order to deliver the highest quality of care standard,” she added.
Some Cases Have Huge Meaning
Walton said there have been cases and patients she feels especially excited about helping during the deployment.
“Any care where you have substantially changed someone’s quality of life has huge meaning,” she said. “We’ve been able to resolve blindness, restore walking and upper body use, reduce chronic pain, and treat life-threatening injuries.”
The nurse spoke of a unique honor not often afforded to those who work in the operating room.
“Our patients often remember our faces,” Walton said. “It is a joy. Our patients stay in the ship’s intensive care unit and recovery wards for a few days after surgery. [We] often see them about the ship, or in a passageway. It is very meaningful to directly see the impact you have on their lives.
“Since you witness both their diagnosis and the living conditions they come from, you have a vivid picture of what they face,” she continued. “We rarely have the opportunity to watch a patient’s full recovery in the days after their operation. It is rewarding to witness that full spectrum, from diagnosis to rehabilitation and discharge.”
Deployment Continues Until October
The USNS Comfort is scheduled to complete its six-month humanitarian mission in October. Officials anticipate the hospital ship serving more than 130,000 patients during Continuing Promise 2015.
As one of the largest trauma facilities in the United States, the Comfort has a full spectrum of surgical and medical services including four X-ray machines, a CAT scan unit, a dental suite, an optometry and lens laboratory, a physical therapy center, a pharmacy, an invasive angiography suite and two oxygen-producing plants. The hospital ship also maintains up to 5,000 units of blood. Patients arrive aboard primarily by helicopter and sometimes by small boat and are then assessed for medical treatment in casualty receiving and routed to surgery or other services depending on their medical condition.