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Humanitarian Deployments Offer USU Navy Surgeon Hands-on, Cultural Immersion Experiences

The hospital ship USNS Mercy departs Naval Base San Diego in support of Pacific Partnership 2018. Pacific Partnership is the largest annual multinational humanitarian assistance and disaster relief preparedness mission conducted in the Indo-Pacific.  [Image credit: Navy photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Kelsey L. Adams]

By Vivian Mason

As the hospital ship USNS Mercy sailed the Pacific Ocean, Navy Cmdr. (Dr.) Tamara Worlton remembered standing on deck watching the amazing burnt orange sunsets. 

“Every night there was an absolutely gorgeous view,” she describes. 

Count that as one of the many great memories and experiences Worlton, associate professor and assistant chair for Global Health in the Uniformed Services University’s (USU) Department of Surgery, had during her deployments with Pacific Partnership 2018 and Comfort Deployment 2019. Worlton says she learned a lot about how the medical diplomacy system worked from those deployments and shares a glimpse into her adventures.


Pacific Partnership 2018

USNS Mercy ― Indo-Pacific Region

Pacific Partnership 2018, in its 13th iteration, was the largest annual multinational humanitarian assistance and disaster relief preparedness mission conducted in the Indo-Pacific region. The USNS Mercy visited several countries in Southeast Asia, including Indonesia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, and Japan to engage with medical, dental, veterinary, public health, and engineering and disaster response services. More than 800 military and civilian personnel from Australia, Canada, France, Japan, Peru, Singapore, South Korea, and the United Kingdom participated in the mission.

“In this partnership mission, which was primarily diplomatic,” explains Worlton, “patient care was not as strongly emphasized as developing relationships with the host nation. In some countries, like Vietnam for example, that long-standing relationship led to being able to perform hundreds of total joint replacement operations.

“There were literally hundreds of medical people onboard. After leaving San Diego, the ship stopped in Hawaii and then in Guam to onboard more people and supplies before it arrived in Indonesia. Then, it headed to Singapore, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, and finally Japan.” 

One of the Sri Lankan surgeons on the USNS Mercy that worked alongside Worlton to perform the first robotic-assisted surgery case aboard a ship. (Photo credit: CDR Tamara Worlton)
One of the Sri Lankan surgeons on the USNS Mercy that worked alongside Worlton to perform the first robotic-assisted surgery case aboard a ship.
(Photo credit: CDR Tamara Worlton)

The USNS Mercy stayed in most countries for about 10 days, depending on mission needs. Sometimes, the lack of patients or the inability to operate sometimes created extra downtime. This downtime allowed Worlton and a few colleagues to publish an article in Military Medicine. The mission also resulted in three posters presented at the Asia Pacific Military Health Exchange. Adds Worlton, “Our multinational team performed the first robotic-assisted surgery case onboard the ship on a Sri Lankan patient that was heavily covered by the media.” 

“I had a lot of fun,” she recalls. “There were always things to do, and activities, clubs and classes  to participate in.” Courses were also available for the medical staff to take, such as the Fundamentals of Global Health Engagement course, the Military Medical Humanitarian Assistance course, and others. 

The onboard medical providers also organized a rotating lecture schedule whereby they gave lectures about their specialties. “I learned a lot about things that had nothing to do with surgery,” Worlton shares. 

Worlton was interviewed for Vietnamese military TV for her role in the first robotic-assisted surgery case aboard a ship. (Photo credit: CDR Tamara Worlton)
Worlton was interviewed for Vietnamese military TV for
her role in the first robotic-assisted surgery case aboard
a ship. (Photo credit: CDR Tamara Worlton)
In the evening, movies were shown on the flight deck. “You’re in the middle of the ocean, and it’s very dark with no ambient light. So, it was really good for stargazing and such.”

There were also various community relations projects to participate in where medical personnel built playgrounds, played soccer, or gave talks to local schools. They also visited local hospitals, met with local surgeons, and discussed cases. Sometimes, medical staff members conducted conferences on various topics. 

“The ship actually seemed small after having been on an aircraft carrier,” Worlton adds. “You can feel like you’re very crowded. The officers slept in six- to eight-man bunks, while the enlisted personnel dealt with two hundred beds per room. It was very hard to find just a little bit of privacy, and noise-cancelling headphones were highly sought after.” 

Translators were vitally important because most countries had more than one official language. Often, the locals came aboard for a guided tour of the ship. 

“Sometimes, I’d give tours and take people around,” Worlton says. “There was nothing classified on the ship, and visitors were fascinated by the vessel and loved taking photos. This was a very popular activity with the locals and definitely played a vital part in our diplomatic relations with them.” 


Comfort Deployment 2019   

USNS Comfort ― Central America, South America, and the Caribbean

The hospital ship USNS Comfort went on a five-month deployment to support humanitarian and partner-building efforts. It also provided medical, surgical, dental, and optometry services as part of the U.S. Southern Command’s Enduring Promise initiative. The ship carried nearly 200 medical professionals, as well as a crew of 800. CDR Worlton recalls her time on the Comfort as highly different from the Pacific Partnership mission.

“We saw a little more than 68,000 patients and performed more than 1,000 surgeries onboard the ship. It was heavily patient care-focused.” 

The second mission stop in Peru offered her the opportunity to visit with the Peruvian Navy surgeon who was with them during the entire Pacific Partnership mission. 

Worlton was a part of the team that helped to organize translators in Haiti for provide aid to over 3,600 patients at one shore-based medical site. (Photo credit: CDR Tamara Worlton)
Worlton was a part of the team that helped to organize translators in Haiti for provide aid to over 3,600 patients at one shore-based medical site. (Photo credit:
CDR Tamara Worlton)

“On the Comfort Deployment 2019,” Worlton elaborates, “I was part of the advance coordination element (ACE) team that arrived in the country early to prepare for the ship’s arrival. Through this process, I learned much more about the political and diplomatic workings behind the mission.”

Worlton continues: “I met so many people along the way, including onboard medical staff, patients and their families, host nation personnel, crew members, and volunteers from organizations around the world. The patients were very excited to be able to get their surgery on the ship, and they took lots of pictures with the medical staff. The inpatient wards often felt like an ongoing party with all the children and families playing games and generally having fun.”  

Haiti was the last stop, with a six-day mission in Port-Au-Prince. There, more than 900 medical professionals provided care for over 3,600 patients at one shore-based medical site. In addition, about 76 surgeries were performed aboard ship. As part of ACE, they were able to make connections with several nongovernmental organizations and charities operating in Haiti. 

“For the patients who we were unable to help,” says Worlton, “they were referred on and that was also quite rewarding. Several of the charities were able to work with us to get much-needed surgery accomplished as well. Because this was the last stop, we were able to leave all the excess medical supplies as a generous donation to the government of Haiti.” 

Deployments such as these reflect the United States’ ongoing commitment to delivering quality healthcare, partnership, and solidarity with its partner nations. Cmdr. Worlton has nothing but gratitude for the invaluable, hands-on, cultural immersion experiences she received while aiding in partnership-building activities in support of humanitarian and disaster relief missions.