PUNTARENAS – Early last Thursday, a nurse in a white hat and light-blue smock emerged from behind a chain-link fence. She approached a swarm of people gathered behind yellow police tape and large orange cones. As she approached, those in the crowd fought to position themselves to receive a coveted blue ticket.
One by one, those with tickets in hand, filed into a health clinic set up by the U.S. Armed Forces in a rugged Puntarenas gym.
Since Aug. 1, members of the U.S. military have been providing health care services to residents in the principal central Pacific city of Puntarenas and its surrounding areas. The crew of 900 came to port in Puntarenas aboard the USNS Comfort, a 10-story white medical boat adorned with giant red crosses.
Like the visit of the U.S. Iwo Jima ship last year to the Caribbean port of Limón, the USNS Comfort will spend 12 days docked in Puntarenas in order to provide health care services on the ship, while the makeshift clinic at the El Colossal gym in Barranca offers more routine checkups (TT, Aug. 19, 2010). Crew members are also renovating a dilapidated school in the port town of Caldera, south of Puntarenas.
Costa Rica is the eighth country the USNS Comfort has aided since April as a part of the “Operation Continuing Promise” tour. Prior to its arrival in Costa Rica, the ship and its crew, which includes 80 doctors, 200 nurses, 72 ship commanders and engineering and logistic personnel, visited Jamaica, Ecuador, Peru, Guatemala, Colombia, Nicaragua and El Salvador. After leaving Costa Rica, the USNS Comfort will travel to Haiti for its final stop before returning to the U.S.
“We chose to come to this region of the world on this mission to provide medical services to communities in need, but also to be in the area during the hurricane and rainy seasons that often cause so much damage in Central and South America,” Captain Brian Nickerson of the U.S. Navy told The Tico Times. “In addition to providing medical services, we also provide residents with information and education to prepare them for potential health crises in the event that a natural disaster occurs.”
Outside the school last week, a line extended the length of a city block, as nearly 500 people waited in the heat to see a doctor. Many waited for several hours, some even days.
“We got here at 5 a.m. this morning,” said Denia Chavarría, a short woman with her black hair pulled into a tight ponytail. “We were here all day yesterday too. We made it almost to the front of the line and then we were told to go home.”
While Chavarría, who waited in line with a group of neighbors, said she was frustrated, she said she was also hopeful doctors could treat the pain in her mouth, something she’s been living with for more than a year and a half. She says she is on a waiting list at the local Monseñor Sanabria Hospital.
“I don’t care how many days I have to wait out here. If I can’t get in today, I’ll come back tomorrow,” she said. “A wait of two or three days here is a lot better than a year and a half at Monseñor Sanabria. It’s worth it.”
Chavarría was one of many that voiced complaints about inattentive national hospitals. In her group of seven, who collectively referred to themselves as “fed-up Ticas,” most said they made appointments months or years ago, though are yet to receive medical attention.
“I went to the hospital three years ago for back pain. They put me on a waiting list and I haven’t been scheduled to see a doctor since,” said Lucía Cambronero. “The gringos come here and give me a check-up in two days.”
Though the hundreds of people in line did their best to shade themselves from the sun by standing beneath umbrellas and tarps, William Scouten, director of the crew’s medical services, said the line was much smaller than they’d seen in other countries. He also said that the patients seen in Costa Rica arrived with less severe ailments and were in better health.
“The majority of the people we have seen here arrive with problems such as hypertension, diabetes and gastrointestinal disease such as diarrhea,” Scouten said. “These are much less severe cases than what we dealt with in other countries. We can definitely attribute that to the high level health care that is provided in Costa Rica.”
For the more severe cases requiring surgery, patients were contacted by the Health Ministry and bused to the USNS Comfort, which is equipped with advanced medical equipment such as emergency rooms, an intensive care unit, operating rooms, pediatric services, X-rays and a blood bank. The boat can handle 1,000 patients at a time.
Last week, 78-year-old Valvina Sardina sat in a small chair next to her hospital bunk aboard the ship, as nurses performed some final evaluations on her right eye. Sardina, a diminutive woman with short grey hair, wore a large bandage and patch over her right eye after having cataract surgery.
“I waited over a year for surgery,” Sardina said. “My vision was blurred and worsening. It’s a true blessing that service like this is available. The surgery was completely painless.”
During its stay in Costa Rica, the staff at USNS Comfort will perform an average of 100 surgeries per day.
While the majority of the medical staff onboard is made up of U.S. military personnel, several international nurses and doctors are also traveling with the crew during the six-month tour. Among the crew, two Costa Rican physicians, Luis Rivera and Mario Vílchez, spent time on board.
“It has been a wonderful experience and to be able to work with people in need in Central and South America,” said Rivera, who has traveled with the boat since April. “We work Monday to Monday from 4 a.m. to 9 p.m. We don’t get much time to rest, but when you see the amount of health needs out there, it motivates you to keep going.”