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I’m CDR Trent Douglas 95M (foreground) with a new update on my summer adventures from Southeast Asia. We are currently under way aboard the USNS Mercy, steaming around the peninsula from Quy Nhon, Vietnam to Sihanoukville, Cambodia.
Since my last message, those of us aboard USNS Mercy have been extremely busy. After departing Hawaii in mid-May we crossed thousands of nautical miles of azure-colored ocean and arrived in Guam to embark an additional 450 personnel ranging from U.S. military to Public Health Service and NGO (non-governmental organization) civilian volunteers.
Needless to say, this is chaotic even under the best circumstances. Our administrative team worked past 3:00 a.m. to check everyone in and make sure that these exhausted souls had a place to sleep.
Having made this flight before, it is completely disorienting to arrive 15 hours into the future after crossing the International Date Line and it takes a good 2–3 days to get on track. We were able to stay pier-side for three full days taking on supplies and giving our new shipmates a chance to acclimatize. Just about the time the glazed over facial expressions were returning to normal, it was time to weigh anchor and point the bow of the ship toward Vietnam.
Our original plan had been to navigate north of the Philippines, but severe weather altered our course and sent us through the San Bernardino Strait—right through the middle of the Philippine Islands. We were treated to a smoking volcano and the sights of land, sometimes getting close enough to make out the details of the small shacks that randomly dotted the jungle islands.
Once safely through the strait, we again entered open ocean and headed for our first mission site. The days spent in transit were filled with activities—training, planning, and organizing. We celebrated Asian-Pacific Heritage Month and had a fantastic performance of traditional Filipino dances. It did not hurt that our head cook is Filipino, and he whipped up a gourmet feast of adobo, pancit, and coco panda (coconut bread).
At 6:00 a.m. on May 31, USNS Mercy dropped anchor about 6km off the coast of Quy Nhon, Vietnam. Our 50 person surgical screening departed 90 minutes later for the boat ride to the pier. We all jumped off the “band-aid” boats and scurried up a very steep and slippery ramp to put our feet down on Vietnamese soil. Two fairly well air-conditioned buses transported us to the Bihn Dihn Provincial Hospital to see potential surgical patients.
It is always an interesting experience to be the first team to provide medical care ashore. The best way that I have found to explain the scene waiting for us is to liken it to the opening bell of the New York Stock Exchange.
There were about 30 Vietnamese doctors present, waving papers all over the place trying to get their patients to the head of the line. Approximately 300 patients were scattered over an area of roughly half an acre. A few of our husky corpsmen made some room for us to set up our administrative area, and before we knew it the first group of patients was checked in, examined, and on the way to the ship for surgery.
It was readily apparent that we were not used to the heat (108 degrees) or the humidity (85%) since we were all sweat-soaked from head to toe and consuming water at a rate usually reserved for beer-chugging contests. As the sun rose higher and the morning turned to afternoon, we worked through the day side-by-side with our Vietnamese counterparts. We took a brief break around noon to respect the local custom of lunch hour and consumed our MREs (mystery Navy food that sometimes comes as advertised, but sometimes does not).
One of the scenes that sticks out most in my mind and which epitomizes the goals of our mission was watching our Australian ophthalmologist perform one of her many cataract examinations alongside the Vietnamese ophthalmologist, using one of our NGO translators, and sending patients to see our Singaporean anesthesiologist for final clearance before being scheduled for surgery.
The spirit of cooperation between host nation physicians and our Pacific Partnership team was truly amazing and helped us complete 132 surgical cases during our 12-day stay. The confidence placed in our surgical care by the Vietnamese was so strong that they brought us two acute trauma patients—one expertly repaired by our orthopedic surgeon and one with multiple facial fractures who was given a thorough trauma workup and a complex reconstruction performed by our ENT surgeon.
Aside from the gratifying and life-changing surgeries that were performed, our presence also benefited the Binh Dinh Province in many other ways. A team of construction engineers from the Seabees and their Australian equivalents completed three major projects, including a complete overhaul of a center for disabled children.
For the first time, veterinary care was allowed ashore and our team saw hundreds of animals and provided valuable vaccination and deworming services. Our biomedical repair technicians fixed several expensive pieces of medical equipment and the Navy band played two concerts for the locals.
As with most areas exposed to high temperatures and humidity, the pace picks up a bit after the sun goes down. We had the opportunity to go ashore a couple of times and partake of the local food. After negotiating a taxi ride to a well-known restaurant, a small group of us sat around small wooden tables in a traditional open-air Asian style room watching a panoramic sunset and seeing the colorful fishing boats return from their daily run. A pounding thunderstorm cooled things off a bit as we sat and took in the ambiance.
I am used to seeing unusual things abroad, but the geckos climbing on the walls behind the bar was something entirely new. The rain forces them inside, where they just hang out for awhile. After a lot of pointing at the menu and a few broken phrases of Vietnamese and English from both sides, our group ended up with the house specials—garlic squid, crab noodles, and a steamed green, leafy vegetable that was something between collard greens and seaweed. It was all good and we were grateful just to be off the ship for a few hours.
The boat ride back to the USNS Mercy was a bit more adventuresome since the storm had whipped the seas up to whitecap level. I was unfortunate enough to be sitting in the “soak zone” and came back completely drenched with salty harbor water and smelling of two-day-old seafood.
During the course of our time in Quy Nhon, the Vietnamese surgeon general visited the ship along with 18 physicians. We shared a working lunch and outlined the basic plans for the Vietnamese to construct a hospital ship platform. We were also joined by ADM Robert Willard, who is the four-star in charge of all military activity in the Pacific Theater. Currently, the head of Navy Medicine West is aboard, RADM Christine Bruzek-Kohler. She is my boss, and will accompany us to our surgical screening in Sihanoukville tomorrow—it will be the start of the next leg of the adventure.
-- CDR Trent Douglas 95M, director, surgical services, USNS Mercy