Building relationships at core of humanitarian mission for Jacksonville Naval Hospital staff
By JOE DARASKEVICH | The Florida Times-Union (Tribune News Service) | Published: March 14, 2017
If the masks hanging from the wall could talk, they would tell stories of medical miracles and lifelong relationships.
Each mask comes from a different place across the globe where Capt. William E. Todd offered his medical expertise to people who had no way of getting the help they needed.
The executive officer at Jacksonville Naval Hospital keeps the colorful masks in his office to remind him of all the lives he’s touched over the years outside the building, adding to the collection each time he returns from a new location.
“Every single one of these missions has left an indelible impression on me,” Todd said, remembering stories from six humanitarian deployments to 17 different countries.
Right now there are about 60 members of his staff deployed to help new people and build new relationships as part of Continuing Promise 2017 (CP-17). Todd said each one of them will return to Jacksonville with a new outlook on the world of medicine and life in general after helping people in Colombia, Guatemala and Honduras.
“When I get back, I’m definitely not going to take things for granted,” said hospital corpsman Kraylor Kirk-Johnson, who is based in Jacksonville and has been in the Navy for just over a year.
He said learning what people go through to get what he considers routine medical treatment has really humbled him.
For Kirk-Johnson, seeing the faces of children after they’ve been helped is the most rewarding thing he’s experienced in his short time in the Navy.
Overall there are about 170 people on the team from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps combined who work together to set up temporary facilities and treat patients. Long lines of men, women and children are treated each day.
Todd served as a planner on CP-17, which meant traveling to the countries as part of the advance team months before the others left the Unites States to administer treatment.
He said the main goal of that team is to build relationships with local doctors, politicians and citizens to pinpoint exactly what medical needs are most necessary.
“I can’t express enough that it is the relationships that matter most,” Todd said.
He said interacting with civilian doctors and patients is a great way for the military doctors to learn new ways of treating people when ideal medical facilities are not available. Those lessons transfer to real-life situations in combat, Todd said.
“We learn a lot from them, and they learn a lot from us,” he said.
Since USNS Spearhead left Mayport Naval Station on Jan. 26, the staff on board has conducted a combined 12,909 patient encounters in Puerto Barrios, Guatemala, and Trujillo, Honduras, with one more stop to go in Mayapo, Colombia.
Those numbers include 3,657 dental; 3,417 adult medicine; 2,013 pediatric; 1,625 optometric; 669 gynecological; 519 dermatological and 435 physical therapy visits. Veterinarians have also treated about 1,500 animals during the mission.
Lt. Cmdr. Robert Lennon, a family medicine physician at Jacksonville Naval Hospital, is the medical site officer in charge for CP-17. He said while it’s very important to provide immediate relief for people who are suffering, it’s also important to teach people how to prevent serious health issues before they get started.
Lessons on brushing teeth or basic hygiene can stop the more serious problems later in life, Lennon said.
“There was one school where half the kids had never seen a toothbrush,” he said.
But one little girl in Honduras needed much more than a toothbrush.
Lennon said Consuala Mirandez is just old enough to attend school, but when other children started bullying her and making fun of a large tumor on her nose, she wanted to stop going. Her father was worried she would never get married and her mother didn’t know what to do, Lennon said.
“In her community having any physical deformity you become an outcast,” Lennon said.
The girl took a four-hour bus ride with her mother to wait in line for help and was eventually diagnosed with a 2-centimeter pyogenic granuloma. They determined the tumor would continue to grow if it wasn’t removed.
Lt. Cmdr. Lesley Hawley, a dermatologist on the CP-17 staff, removed the growth for the little girl. The interaction afterward will be burned in Lennon’s memory forever.
“I got to see the hug,” he said of the embrace between Hawley and Consuala.
Seeing the initial reaction from patients is powerful, but sometimes returning to some of those places can be even more emotional, Todd said.
He deployed to Haiti in 2010 to help after a devastating earthquake hit the country. He returned as part of Continuing Promise 2015 and reconnected with several people who were on his operating table just five years earlier.
People who required surgery or whose limbs were amputated on the first visit remembered him when he came back. But one child did not.
That child was just 5 years old in 2015, and Todd said he stood on a pier with the boy and his mother. The woman pointed to the hospital ship anchored in the ocean and told the child he was born on board.
“These relationships you build over time are absolutely priceless,” Todd said.
The child would have never survived if the ship wasn’t there, and his mother may have died in childbirth due to the post-earthquake conditions on the island.
There’s a mask on his wall that reminds Todd of Haiti and the little boy that was born on the ship.
He said he’s excited to hear about similar stories when members of his staff returns from CP-17.
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