Last summer, 13 BYU graduates gathered aboard a ship in the Caribbean. While the food was plentiful and activities abounded 24 hours a day, this was no cruise ship. The USNS Comfort—a U.S. Navy hospital ship—took 800 passengers on a four-month expedition to take medical care and humanitarian aid to seven countries in the Caribbean and Latin America.
Named Operation Continuing Promise, the mission was the fourth in a series of deployments that offered training for U.S. military personnel and partner nation forces while providing services to communities in need. Although the U.S. Navy provided the majority of the doctors and nurses, medical personnel were deployed from the other branches of the U.S. military, the U.S. Public Health Service, various other governments, and non-governmental organizations, such as LDS Humanitarian Services. Nearly a third of the civilian volunteers were members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who took time away from their jobs and families to serve for one month or longer.
“As a BYU nursing student, I was able to study abroad in Argentina,” says Amber J. Pack (BS ’05). “I worked in a public maternity hospital in San Miguel de TucumÃ¡n and had my eyes opened to the world of international health. That experience helped prepare me for what I was to discover aboard the USNS Comfort. We would often hear patients say that we were there in answer to their prayers.”
The crew performed more than 100,000 medical procedures and 1,600 surgeries during the mission. At each country where the ship docked, temporary clinics were set up on shore in schools or community centers to provide dental, medical, and optical procedures as well as preventive medical treatment for those lacking adequate care. The team also provided veterinary procedures for the community. Patients needing surgery were taken to the ship, often by helicopter. Surgical procedures addressed ophthalmological, gynecological, orthopedic, and oral-maxillofacial problems such as cleft palates.
Volunteers say the mission combined professional nursing expertise and Christlike love. “My testimony was strengthened while serving as I felt Christ’s love working through all on the ship to reach those who needed our help and medical expertise,” says Jennifer L. Smith (BS ’05), from Provo.
Ali Bowden (MPH ’07), a Lethbridge, Alberta, emergency-room nurse and college nursing instructor, remembers one patient from Antigua in particular. Mary, a woman suffering from cataracts, had waited three days for treatment before being taken aboard the ship. “Mary thanked the Lord and all of us who have been an answer to her prayers,” says Bowden. “She reminded me that the Lord loves his children and is mindful of our every need. In her words, ‘When me think he no hear, he hear. When me think me prayers no go, he answer.’ I feel blessed to be a part of her joy and to be reminded that strong faith in a loving God brings about small, and sometimes great, miracles.”
It was an experience the BYU grads say they won’t soon forget. “We’ve been able to bring hope where there wasn’t any hope,” says Kathryn Money (MS ’06), a neonatal intensive-care nurse from 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.”