Posted By: Meredith Rizzo on June 20, 2011

Labels: Colombia, Disaster and Health Crisis Missions , Volunteers

Work wrapped up in Tumaco, Colombia with 4,937 patients seen at the MEDCAPS and 126 surgeries performed in 10 days while anchored off the coast. Veterinarians treated 557 animals while local educational exchanges included 168 participants.

Tumaco presented a couple of challenges to the crew, including travel to and from the MEDCAP site, and a heightened security presence during all missions ashore.

“It's a beautiful country, but dangerous. One of the most dangerous places I've ever been. That kept being reinforced while we were here,” Tracy Kunkel, a 21-year Navy veteran and HOPE volunteer nurse says.

Patients with burns, machete wounds, and amputations were more prevalent, and spanned all age and gender categories.  

The security presence during our stay in Colombia did have longer reaching repercussions, however. The concentration of security forces and collaboration between the U.S. military and Colombian military resulted in the capture of one of the top ten most wanted drug traffickers in Colombia while we were in country.

Travel to and from the MEDCAP site also presented advantages, despite the challenge.

Gentle currents in the morning often turned to rolling waves by the evening and made travel to and from the Comfort an interesting experience. Many of the crew came back to the Comfort soaked from the 45-minute ride back.

“It’s funny because some people were complaining, but people pay money back home to go on such a long boat ride. It was fun,” Kunkel says, laughing.

Kunkel, who educates local healthcare providers and patients on nutrition, health practices, and newborn care at the MEDCAP sites, led educational classes in Tumaco. 

“I was giving classes to the Colombian doctors and nurses,” Kunkel explained. “I was teaching them about infection and one of the hospitals didn't even have sinks. They had one sink and it was in the OR. I talked to them about the importance of cleaning their equipment.”  

Kunkel also taught a vital class called “Helping Babies Breathe.” The class teaches how to resuscitate newborns shortly after delivery, and is especially important in areas where access to urgent health care is limited.

“When I was teaching, [the doctors and nurses] were saying things like women would have babies on the way to the hospital and the babies would just die. It’s sad and I'm glad we went to help. I really wish we could do more,” Kunkel adds.

We did make a difference in someone's life. 

At a recent debriefing we were reminded of how our presence off the coast of Tumaco helped save the life of the 21-year-old IED patient. The total turn-around time from the explosion to the time the patient boarded the USNS Comfort was one hour and ten minutes, thanks in part to the MH-60s helicopters and Medevac team. The urgency of the situation was a gauge of how quickly the crew could transition to emergency conditions should the need arise, such as during a disaster relief event.

As the HOPE volunteers set sail from Colombia to Nicaragua, six team members prepare to leave the USNS Comfort for 12 new volunteers.

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