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Church Volunteers Help Massive Medical Relief Effort

May 2009

Four Month Mission Blesses Lives of 90,000

The scene on the southern shore of the Dominican Republic was right out of a travel brochure: azure waters, palm tree-lined paths, and puffy cotton clouds against a bright blue sky. As we rounded a point on the coast, we caught a glimpse of our home for the next few days—a large white ship glistening in the sun about a mile offshore. But this wasn’t a cruise ship, it was a U.S. Navy hospital ship—the USNS Comfort. Its 800 “passengers” are on a four-month expedition to bring badly needed medical care to seven different countries in the Caribbean, South America, and Central America.

“Operation Continuing Promise 2009 is a humanitarian and civic assistance mission to provide medical, dental, veterinary, and engineering services, along with education, for the countries we visit,” said Commodore Bob Lineberry, mission commander. “It’s a very important mission for the United States and for our private volunteers and non-governmental organization partners.”

“As a church we are grateful to participate in this collaborative effort that reaches so many in need,” said Lynn A. Samsel, Director of Emergency Response for the Church. “The members who are volunteering their time are grateful for the opportunity to join with others in this service. It is having a profound effect on their lives and they are making a wonderful contribution to those they serve.”

Jan Tanner comforts a Dominican mother and her 15-month old daughter the night before surgery in the pre-op ward nicknamed “The Hotel.” Jan Tanner comforts a Dominican mother and her 15-month old daughter the night before surgery in the pre-op ward nicknamed “The Hotel.”

Multi-dimensional mission

The mission provides a unique opportunity for the Church to work with other humanitarian organizations and the ministries of health in the seven countries visited. Of the 650 medical professionals on board, 600 are active duty and reserve military and 50 are civilian volunteers. Nearly a third of the civilians are Church member volunteers who are taking time away from their jobs and families to serve for one month or longer. Others will rotate in as earlier volunteers leave, bringing the total number of LDS volunteers to more than forty.

“Life onboard the USNS Comfort is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced,” said Jenna Rix, an LDS Business College student (Bountiful, Utah). “My floating home for four months is equivalent to a ten story building three football field lengths long and one wide with 800 people on board. It provides a very interesting dynamic with all branches of the military, humanitarian organizations, and doctors from around the globe.”

Jenna is a non-medical volunteer with a high-profile assignment: working with the ship’s Chaplain and his staff. “Being part of a group of people who have the spiritual and mental well-being of everyone on board at heart is something I don’t take lightly,” she said. “I pray each morning to be able to be put in the path of those who might need me.”

“When we stepped aboard the ship, we realized that the medical crews hadn’t worked with each other before,” said Janet Tanner, a home health and hospice nurse (Brigham City, Utah). “My berthing assignment was with five women from five different areas of the United States and five different medical specialties. It’s wonderful how everyone came with a common goal to help people here in Central America.”

An estimated 90,000 medical procedures and 3,000 surgeries will be performed during the four-month mission. Medical teams are transported from ship to shore by a 40-passenger boat seven days a week. There, they set up temporary clinics in schools or community centers to provide dental and medical procedures to those who can’t afford care. Veterinary procedures are also provided for the community. Surgical patients are flown to the ship in one of its two helicopters.

Member volunteers

The Church was notified of the opportunity to participate in the mission just a few weeks before the ship set sail from Miami. Consequently, volunteers had little time to make arrangements to participate.

“The Lord definitely wanted this program to work because of the way it came about and the number and speed of response from volunteers,” said Susan Puls, M.D., LDS volunteer medical coordinator (Eden, Utah). “I said, ‘we’ll never find anybody who can take a month off work as a medical professional,’ and I was proven wrong over a hundred times. It‘s a great opportunity to partner with the U.S. Navy to serve in countries and work with people we wouldn’t otherwise get to do.”

Members in the first wave of LDS volunteers ranged from a 19-year-old technician to a retired operating room nurse. Each found fulfillment in the mission.

“I just completed a CNA course,” said Rachel Morrell (Eden, Utah). “It’s really intimidating to be the youngest member of the group and see the level of expertise on board. But they’ve all been super patient and willing to train me. I love working in the post-op ward to see kids as they come out of surgery and feel their gratitude for our efforts to help them. God has blessed my life in so many ways so I thought it would be cool to come and bring hope to people and show them that they are not alone.”

“When I retired, I thought I was supposed to take it easy but there are too many adventures that I wanted to have,” said Joyce Stewart (Orem, Utah). “First on my list was to go on a mission and I was called to Fiji to be the mission nurse. Continuing Promise was another adventure and opportunity to serve. As a church service missionary, I get to work with wonderful people and experience that brother- and sisterhood that the gospel brings.”

“In the Dominican Republic, 25 full-time missionaries provided translation for doctors and other medical practitioners at the on-shore clinics,” said Bennie Lilly, Caribbean Area Welfare Manager for the Church. “Local members were involved as well, providing nearly 600 hours of service.”

Needed supplies

LDS Humanitarian Services provided ten semi-truck loads of medical supplies, hygiene kits, school kits, and food for the mission. When the ship sets anchor at each country it visits, a portion of these and other supplies are airlifted by helicopter to shore and distributed to those in need.

Angela Berrett and Sloane Smith carry two children from casualty receiving to the pre-op ward for their hernia surgeries scheduled for the following day.  Angela Berrett and Sloane Smith carry two children from casualty receiving to the pre-op ward for their hernia surgeries scheduled for the following day.

Emergency room nurse Angela Berrett (Salt Lake City, Utah) went to shore in Haiti when recipients of medical supplies met representatives of donor organizations. “I met a husband and wife who helped run a school for children,” she said. “They said that without these donated foods, toys, and hygiene products the children would have nothing! It makes me want to dedicate my life to helping them. I don’t know that I can go home and live in my house and have a car and anything I want when people are begging for just one meal a day.”

Daryl Olschewski, a respiratory therapist (West Valley City, Utah), put it in perspective: “Hope doesn’t just come in a syringe, it doesn’t come in a box of medical supplies,” he said. “It comes with the people who bring it. There’s a lot to be said for the people who serve and those who donate to the humanitarian fund. When those two work symbiotically and give to those who are ready to have their lives elevated, it’s a most supernal experience.”

Professional expertise and caring

One unique aspect of the mission is the level of professional expertise, combined with Christ-like love, that Church volunteers bring to the ship.

“We’ve been able to bring hope where there wasn’t any hope, and bring a light to people’s eyes,” said Katie Money, a neonatal intensive care nurse (Ogden, Utah). “It humbles me and makes me so grateful for what I have, and it makes me want to help again and help more. Some say you can’t fix all the problems—but if you can make a difference in one person’s life, it changes everything for them.”

“This has been one of the most fulfilling things I’ve done in my life,” said volunteer Dawn Walker (Pleasant Grove, Utah). “Bringing this ship to people changes their lives. The procedures performed here help people see, walk, or use their hands. There was a young boy whose hand had been burned and was closed, and they opened it up for him. Now he has a hand that works. It’s neat just to see his excitement.”

katie-money-sm Katie Money: “When I go back to work in the United States, I will totally change my practice”

“I recall a nine-year-old child with cataracts,” said Rob Voynow, an L.P.N. (Union, Washington). “After the surgery took place and they took off the bandages, he was able to recognize his mother for the very first time in his life. A whole new world opened up to him and he was running around seeing new objects and wanting to know what that was, what this color was. It was so brand new to him, something we take for granted when we get up in the morning.”

“When I go back to work in the United States, I will totally change my practice,” said emergency room nurse Sloane Smith (Orem, Utah). “I’ll know clinically how diseases progress if you aren’t able to take care of them, such as untreated breast cancer or runaway parasite infections. My mentality of taking care of problems early has changed. My caring mentality has also changed. The pain I’ve seen in people here has touched me much deeper; it’s made me more empathetic.”

Ten LDS volunteers Ten LDS volunteers pose prior to embarking on the USNS Comfort in Miami. Top: Jan Tanner, Sheryl Flanary, Laura Young, Pirrko Gibb, Dr. Susan Puls, Joyce Stewart; Bottom Dawn Walker, Angela Berrett, Sloane Smith, Katie Money.

“Everybody makes a difference,” said labor and delivery nurse Sheryl Flanary (Pleasant Grove, Utah). “It’s discouraging when you visit countries and feel that you’ve just put a band-aid on things, but we’ve also done a lot of teaching. People come up to us and say, ‘Thank you for teaching us how to take care of ourselves,’ and that’s the point: we leave a little bit of relief and we give them some hope.”

“In Haiti, a little boy was found in a ditch,” said nurse Laura Young (Honeyville, Utah). “He was a throwaway child. He had 22 fractures, some of which had not healed correctly. He was brought to the ship by a missionary couple from another church with whom he had been living the last 14 months. We had to re-break his femur and strengthen it with a stainless steel rod. One of the miracles is that they found the exact rod they needed in the back of a cupboard. It just happened to be here; it wasn’t something they brought for this mission.”

“Overwhelmingly, my testimony has been strengthened that we are all Heavenly Father’s children,” said Berrett. “Regardless of our circumstances, He is aware of us and our needs.”

An LDS U.S. Public Health Service officer, LT. Tim McCreary, echoed the experience of everyone aboard the ship: “Don’t ever doubt for a moment that you are making a difference,” he said. “Never doubt. While we can’t change everything bad, it’s the hope that we bring. It’s the hope. And there’s no better way to share that than with the food, with our presence, with our interest, and with our love.”

Originally printed in The Church News, Salt Lake City, Utah, May 16, 2009

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