But the July 2015 visit to Dominica by the USNS Comfort, a US Navy hospital ship, ratcheted up this part of the RUSM experience to a new level. About 900 RUSM students joined Comfort medical personnel to participate in and observe a wide array of health services provided to the people of Dominica.
The USNS Comfort is an enormous mobile medical vessel equipped with 12 operating rooms and specialized trauma centers. It’s as long as three football fields and as tall as a 10-story building. From July 27 to Aug. 6, the Comfort docked in Roseau, the capital city of Dominica, to provide screenings, patient education, surgical care, and other healthcare services to local residents. It’s all part of Continuing Promise, a six-month Navy medical mission that launched in March 2015 and has included stops in Jamaica, Costa Rica, and other countries on similar initiatives.
When the Comfort docked on Monday, July 27, the Navy carried medical technology and supplies from onboard down to mobile screening clinics in the field, setting everything up in unused classrooms in two Dominican schools—Roosevelt Douglas Primary School in Portsmouth and the Dominica Grammar School in Roseau. These satellite clinics were geared toward a multitude of specialties—one for women’s health, another for radiology, a third for pediatrics, and so on—and students had the opportunity to shadow physicians both in these clinics and on the ship itself. Although all students observed, many took the opportunity to practice interviewing patients, perform blood pressure checks, or perform other minor procedures.
In an interesting twist, students served as a valuable liaison between Dominican citizens and the Navy. Dominican citizens generally keep a “medical book”, a composition notebook filled with pages and pages of prescriptions, conditions, and medical data. The Navy had no way of knowing this, but RUSM students, many of whom work in community clinics, did know, and that information helped the Navy physicians do their jobs.
Though security to the interior of the ship was tight, some students actually got to board the Comfort itself. Some Dominican patients had been pre-screened for surgery on July 27, and those surgeries were performed later that week onboard the ship in one of its 12 operating suites. Students got to scrub in, observe, and ask questions as surgeons removed tumors, repaired foot injuries, conducted some plastic surgery, and more.
For the medical personnel aboard the Comfort, the visit to Dominica was part of an ongoing humanitarian mission. But for the RUSM students who participated, it was much more: an eye-opening experience to what it means to be a doctor, and for many, a greater lesson than books or lectures, or even standardized patients, can provide.