Monday, July 12, 2010

Preparing for Mission in Indonesia

At the end of the second day of liberty in Singapore, seasoned volunteers and those new to both ships and to international volunteering gathered for the first full meeting of the Project HOPE team. We met in the the USNS Mercy's Ward Ten, and many of us arrived panting, our maps of the ship in hand, relieved that we had found the orange stairwell down to the third deck. There are at least 48 “areas” of the ship, eight decks across six zones, and navigating the ship internally is probably the biggest challenge some us face in our initial days here.

HOPE’s Medical Director, Dr. Lynne Bemiller, and Faye Pyles, HOPE’s Chief Nursing and Operations Officer welcomed our group of twenty. We hail from 13 states, and bring a range of health care expertise so greatly needed in remote islands of Indonesia: practitioners in pediatrics, internal medicine, surgery, intensive care, anesthesiology, and pharmacology.

Two pharmacy students from Shenandoah University of Virginia, Brian Cox and Julie Horak, are volunteering under the direction of pharmacist John Nett of Virginia. Project HOPE is all about medical education and our volunteers have trained thousands of practitioners in their home countries, who are then valuable resources long after Project HOPE has departed.

Eleven of us are on our first Project HOPE mission, but if the experienced of our seasoned team members is any indication, it seems many of us are likely to re-up at some point in the future, because the other nine have been HOPE volunteers multiple times. “I’m proud to participate in missions that are so organized and that build such positive international relationships,” says Sheila Cardwell, starting her sixth HOPE mission.

We have also had a series of orientations about safety with naval personnel. We learned what to do if we see someone go overboard: POINT and keep pointing, never taking your eyes off the person while help is summoned. Everyone who rushes to the rail must also point. If you look away for one second, we were told, you’d look back and not see the person needing rescue. We also learned that the Navy’s awesome garbage separation system is about more than the environment. We sort by paper, metal, plastic, batteries, and food waste. (I haven’t yet figured out what to do with an empty Bic pen.) It’s crucial not to carelessly throw an aerosol can into the paper bin. The paper is burned, and last year an aerosol can exploded in the incinerator, sending a staffer to the hospital for two days with burns. It’s a bit heart stopping to hear about worst case scenarios, but also reassuring that the Navy is so organized and strict about safety.

We had our second meeting of the Project HOPE team to get our schedule for today. Everyone is looking forward to the initial department orientations. Almost everyone here is psyched to get to our first location and get to the heart of what we came to do: provide medical, dental, nursing and ancillary care to people who have been waiting weeks, months, or years for treatment. But to do the job right, there will be several days of training. While the Navy is the backbone of these humanitarian missions, many countries provide service personnel, and many NGOs (non-governmental organizations like Project HOPE) contribute volunteers who rotate in and out. It will take days of meetings to bring everyone together for an efficient and high quality launch of care.

Lynn Bemiller, our HOPE medical director ends each meeting with our “Navy word of the day.” Last night’s was actually a phrase: belay my last. It means that the person on the PA system wants you to disregard the immediately prior message. Several of us at breakfast today (Starbucks coffee!) agreed that the phrase is much more charming than “scratch that.”

We have been offered tours of the engine room today and almost everyone is taking advantage of this opportunity to see the enormous machines that propel us to our destination.

My personal challenge these first few days has been to find a way to sleep. Some of us are in rooms with eight “racks” (officer quarters) and others of us are in enlisted berthing, triple bunked in an enormous room with, let’s just say, lots of other people, both paid military personnel and volunteers. My first night in the middle bunk of a triple involved very little sleep. That, plus jet lag produced a writer who could barely put together a noun and a verb. The second night was better, and I’m happy to report that my third night was a sleeping success. I’ve learned to tuck in before lights out at 2200 (ten o’clock) because fumbling around in the dark is not a conductive pre-sleep activity. I did wake up pre-dawn, so I got up to walk the decks. A friendly soldier from Arizona (the state, not the ship) with a very large gun was on guard duty at the aft end of the ship. Surrounded by black sea and sky, we both admired the stars.

Thanks for your interest in Project HOPE -- Kathryn Allen, HOPE Public Affairs Officer

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