NORFOLK — With ongoing unrest in Venezuela, the hospital ship Comfort left Naval Station Norfolk Friday morning on a five-month cruise to provide medical relief to parts of the Caribbean and South America.
Stops are planned for Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Grenada, Haiti, Jamaica, Panama, St. Lucia, St. Kitts and Nevis, and Trinidad and Tobago.
“This deployment responds directly to the man-made crisis (Nicolás) Maduro’s regime has created,” said Adm. Craig Faller, the Miami-based leader of U.S. Southern Command, in a statement emailed to Navy Times.
“We are committed to finding ways to support the Venezuelan people and our regional partners who share the goal of seeing a legitimate, democratic government reinstated in Venezuela.”
A 13-member multinational medical team from Canada, Brazil, Mexico and Costa Rica will augment the health professionals from the Navy and other federal agencies on board the hospital ship.
“We are deploying with 197 credentialed medical professionals that are joint forces. That’s Public Health, U.S. Navy, and U.S. Army providers aboard, combined with my full staff of over 800 people,” said Capt. Kevin Buckley, the commanding officer of the Comfort Medical Treatment Facility.
“There’s potentially approximately 100 medical providers coming from the civilian non-government organizations partners as well as other host nations that may be joining us during the mission stops.”
Once in port in Colombia, the Comfort’s crew will work with “host nation medical professionals” who are “absorbing thousands of Venezuelan migrants and refugees” who are “desperately fleeing their homeland for hope of a better way of life," Faller said.
Like sister hospital ship Mercy, the 32-year-old Comfort was built by converting a commercial tanker into one of the largest floating trauma facilities in the world.
Lawmakers last year nixed the Navy’s plans to retire one of the two 894-foot-long, 69,360-ton vessels, instead appropriating $6.4 million to extend the life of San Diego-based Mercy.
Both hospital ships are maintained and operated by the Military Sealift Command’s civilian mariners. Some stay with the ship all the time, others augment the crew when the ship deploys.
The ship’s military-run medical facilities are commanded by Buckley, a 29-year medical officer with experience in both expeditionary warfare and humanitarian missions.
The Comfort can become fully operational in five days. It boasts 1,000 beds and a supply of 5,000 units of blood, plus four X-ray machines and a CAT scan unit; a dental clinic; an optometry and lens lab; physical therapy center; pharmacy; angiography suite; and two oxygen-producing plants.
But during this cruise Buckley expects most of the medical work will be conducted on shore at sites set up by the ship’s crew, providing greater access to those who need care.
The ship has deployed seven times to the Latin American region since 2007, twice in the past year.
During last fall’s Latin America deployment, the Comfort treated more than 26,000 patients and conducted about 600 surgeries, officials said.
In 2017, the Comfort was ordered to Puerto Rico in the wake of hurricanes Irma and Maria.
The medical team treated 1,899 patients, performed 191 surgeries and delivered to island residents 76,000 liters of oxygen and 10 tons of food and water