Posted By: John P. Howe, III, M.D. on August 2, 2010

Labels: Haiti , Humanitarian Aid, Volunteers

On the USNS Iwo Jima, three miles off the white sand coast of Port-au-Paix in northern Haiti, the berths are filled with doctors and nurses, engineers and electricians from the U.S. and countries around the world, now engaged in the Navy mission Continuing Promise.

Its mission—to train U.S. personnel, military and civilian, for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief—is the twentieth for Project HOPE and the Navy. What began with the tsunami, and 210 Project HOPE medical staff on the USNS Mercy, continues to this day aboard the Iwo Jima, where four separate Project HOPE rotations of volunteer doctors and nurses will be involved in its entire four-month deployment in Latin America.

The waters of the Caribbean are too deep for the ship to drop anchor at its current location, so it slowly moves in a square pattern at two knots – an appropriate metaphor for its always-in-motion schedule, one which will include eight countries, with visits of about ten days each.

Mission Commander, Captain Tom Negus, told us that this is the best experience of his Navy career, as he brings together people to deal with the most challenging of issues facing the region. Negus likened the process to weaving a tapestry—integrating professionals from a wide array of disciplines with the needs of the community.

From 5:00am to 7:00pm, seven days a week, the men and women of the Iwo Jima, including volunteers from HOPE and those of other non-governmental organizations, are reaching out to Haitians in need -- on the ship and on shore. These settings include clinics offering medicine and surgery, as well as operating rooms for eye and general surgery. Each day, over 600 men, women and children are the beneficiaries.

Earlier today, HOPE volunteer and internist Mike Polifka, now in his seventh Navy/HOPE rotation, cared for a young woman with swelling in her right leg. In the U.S., this finding might have been confused with venous insufficiency, swelling related to inadequate return of blood to the heart. Not so in Haiti, thanks to Dr. Polifka. He made the diagnosis of elephantiasis (filariasis) -- an infection involving the lymphatic system rarely seen in the U.S. The antibiotics that he prescribed will improve her life dramatically.

Port-au-Paix Mayor Charles Guillet Salvador came to the clinic this afternoon -- to personally thank Dr. Polifka and his Navy and HOPE colleagues. He spoke, in grateful terms, of the profound impact that the Iwo Jima is having on the people of Port-au-Paix. When the ship leaves in a week, they will have a different view, positive at that, of America.

All of this is in perfect keeping with the proud traditions of the first ship on which HOPE volunteers served: namely, the Consolation, a Navy hospital ship, painted white and renamed the SS HOPE in 1960. Its legacy lives on, here in Haiti, on the Iwo Jima.

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