USNS Mercy Continues Care for Indonesians

By Samantha L. Quigley

A volunteer doctor from Japan comforts an infant prior to the patient being medically evacuated from the island of Nias, Indonesia to the Military Sealift Command hospital ship USNS Mercy for treatment.

Photo by Sandra M. Palumbo / U.S. Navy Photo

The Navy hospital ship USNS Mercy is becoming a common sight off the coast of the Indonesian island of Sumatra, the commander of the ship’s medical treatment facility said by phone from Nias, Indonesia.

Navy Capt. Mark Llewellyn said the Mercy had been on its way home after assisting in the tsunami relief efforts when new orders sent the ship back to Indonesia to provide care to the people of Nias after an earthquake.

“We left Banda Aceh on the 14th of March,” he said. “We then started our return trip to San Diego with a much reduced staff. We stopped for four days working in Alor, Indonesia, and had done two days in Dili, East Timor, when we were called again to return back to western Sumatra and Nias, specifically for earthquake disaster relief.”

The area was hit by a tsunami that followed a strong earthquake on Dec. 26, 2004. Another major earthquake- at a magnitude 8.7 – occurred on March 28. The most recent one, at 6.0, occurred in the region April 5. The epicenter of that earthquake was situated between Simeulue and Nias islands off the coast of Sumatra.

The Mercy was met in Nias by members of Project Hope, a nongovernmental medical and humanitarian organization. Military medical personnel from military medical facilities in San Diego, Bethesda, Md., and other locations also met the ship, bringing the staff close to the 600 people aboard while the Mercy was off the coast of Sumatra’s Banda Aceh.

The ship has been off Nias for nearly two weeks and has treated 700 patients ashore, the captain said, adding that 45 patients are currently being treated onboard.

“We’ve done 48 major surgeries aboard the ship,” Llewellyn said. “These are really significant surgical procedures. A lot of them are orthopedic in nature from injuries … received from the earthquake.”

The medical team also has done a lot of dental work and passed out a significant number of eyeglasses, he said. In Nias, the number of eyeglasses hovers around 400. The figures from Banda Aceh put the number of eyeglasses near 5,000.

The Mercy has treated more than 10,000 patients since arriving off the coast of Banda Aceh in February, Llewellyn said.

When the Mercy set out for Indonesia on Jan. 5, it carried a number of nongovernmental organization representatives, a first for the ship. It was an experiment that worked well, Llewellyn said.

“It worked very well, because we went in representing the spirit and heart of America, which only knows how to do things one way,” he said. “Any obstacles here were instantly overcome. In fact, we didn’t have any obstacles here on the ship. Medical professionals working together – Navy medicine alongside top-notch civilian medicine – it was just a tremendous partnership.”

The team’s guiding principle going in was to ask, “How can we help you?” Llewellyn said. “We went in with the spirit of cooperation, coordination and collaboration with the others already there.”

The goodwill wasn’t one-sided, either, Llewellyn said.

“We have been forever changed by the warmth with which we have been received here and the relationships that we have established in both Banda Aceh and Nias island,” he said.

The Mercy anticipates departing near the end of April, Llewellyn said.