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John P. Howe, III, M.D.

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The Quality of Mercy

Posted: 05/24/2012 7:34 pm

As Americans remember the sacrifices of our military on Memorial Day, I also recall the thousands of Project HOPE volunteers dispatched across the globe over the years to bring health and healing to foreign shores. I also think of those heading overseas this summer as part of "Pacific Partnership 2012," the Asia-Pacific region's largest civic assistance program.

Asian sea lanes already carry millions of tons of goods, including oil, that power the global economy and will only become more important as rising India and China assume more prominent roles in the global economy. Piracy and territorial disputes are already creating waves in volatile Asian waters, and the risk of accidental conflict among regional powers seems to be rising.

But for the next four-and-a-half months, those turbulent waters will witness a vision of peace, not war, as the U.S. Navy hospital ship, the USNS Mercy, with its hulking whitewashed lines and large red cross painted on the stern, arrives in Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Cambodia.

The plan: bring medical, dental, and other humanitarian aid to the people in needy coastal communities.

"Pacific Partnership 2012" is more than a humanitarian effort -- it is designed to hone common skills and collaboration that U.S. and regional powers could quickly bring to bear in the event of a new natural disaster.

Volunteer doctors, nurses and allied health professionals from Project HOPE, and other U.S. --based NGOs, will travel on Mercy's voyage. Among the HOPE volunteers traveling the narrow hallways of the Mercy will be general surgeons, anesthesiologists, internal medicine specialists, general practitioners, pediatricians, pharmacists, midwives and nurses.

For our organization, the mission represents a return to our roots. For years, we operated the SS HOPE, a hospital ship which toured the developing world providing medical care to populations with access to only the most rudimentary health care. The great white vessel was gifted in 1958 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower to be used for medical humanitarian missions.

At the time, the Cold War was at its most chill; Ike was getting ready to move out of the White House and HOPE founder, Dr. William Walsh, one of the President's physicians, convinced him to donate a Navy ship to be outfitted as a floating hospital to treat patients, especially children, in the underdeveloped world. It would be dubbed "the most welcomed ship in the world" and when it was retired in 1974 -- after 11 voyages -- Project HOPE cemented its legacy with new land-based missions.

Decades later, the U.S. Navy's ship-based Humanitarian Civic Assistance program deploys the USNS Mercy to Asia and Oceania and the USNS Comfort to Latin America and the Caribbean. Combined, the two vessels are the world's fifth largest hospital. The ships have a staggering potential not just to save lives, but also to teach families and health care professionals how to build stronger and healthier communities.

Our return to Indonesian shores echoes the promise of HOPE's 1960 inaugural voyage to Ambon Island in Indonesia. The SS HOPE and its medical volunteers made a yearlong voyage which also stopped in Vietnam. A three-year-old girl named Harati on Ambon Island had not been able to take her first steps until Project HOPE found a berth in the island's harbor. Disabled by a polio-like disease and given no chance of ever walking, Harati was outfitted with a splint and a pair of crutches aboard the SS HOPE, and began a course of physical therapy under the direction of an Indonesian therapist trained by HOPE volunteers. With her mother watching, amazed, Harati was soon taking her first steps.

The current mission is HOPE's 23rd with the U.S. Navy worldwide since the Mercy set sail to respond to the Indonesian tsunami seven years ago. Since then, personnel from the U.S. Navy, HOPE and other NGOs have cared for more than 750,000 patients, performing over 10,000 surgeries and training over 200,000 health care workers and individuals.

For the next four months, 100 HOPE volunteers will embark the Mercy for East Asian shores lined with parents holding anxious children and hoping for free surgery that only the mission's U.S.-trained specialists can perform on the 1,000-bed ship equipped with 12 operating rooms. Men and women will seek medicine for ailments that inhibit their ability to work and make a living, and American medical volunteers will again be amazed at how much their medical counterparts in developing nations have to do with so little. HOPE volunteers will return home to their hospitals and practices in the U.S. with insights and life lessons that will be applied in hospitals and clinics across this nation, benefitting the country and further nourishing the great potential of medical diplomacy for generations to come.

Eisenhower knew the cost of war and the deprivation it spawns. In his first term in 1953, he said: "Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed."

But more than half a century after his gift of an aging ship, the U.S. Navy and dedicated Project Hope volunteer medical professionals and educators are proving that from military strength can flow goodness.

 

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