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By Julia Symmes Cobb
ABOARD THE USNS COMFORT, Nov 28 (Reuters) - Three-year-old Emily is curled in the corner of a bunk bed, under anesthesia. Her Venezuelan mother watches over her, swaying as the hospital ship pitches back and forth off the coast of northern Colombia.
Emily’s parents spent years in Venezuela trying to get a mass removed from her right eyelid, but shortages of food and medicine forced them to migrate across the border to Colombia to seek treatment, as their nation’s healthcare system collapsed.
U.S. Navy surgeons completed the procedure in just 30 minutes, suturing the small wound with miniscule stitches aboard the USNS Comfort, a hospital ship making its penultimate stop on a Latin American tour of four countries including Peru, Ecuador and Honduras.
“The operation was so important because it affected her face,” Emily’s mother, Rubileth Parra, 24, said. “We couldn’t get her an operation (in Venezuela), so we came here.”
Emily is one of thousands of patients receiving care during the Comfort’s stop near the Caribbean port city of Riohacha.
Medical staff on the ship treated more than 5,400 patients during its previous five-day stop in Turbo, a Colombian city near the border with Panama. An estimated 2,500 will be seen in Riohacha. The trip is the ship’s fifth visit to Colombia in the past 11 years.
Although most patients are Colombians seeking care amid long delays in their oversubscribed healthcare system, some are Venezuelan migrants who have fled an economic crisis across the border, where hunger and preventable disease are soaring.
More than 3 million people have left Venezuela in recent years, with about 1 million settling in Colombia. The government has spent millions of dollars in limited public funds to tend to them, including establishing a migrant camp in the capital, Bogota.
The United Nations this week approved more than $9 million in aid for Venezuela, its first emergency funding to President Nicolas Maduro’s socialist government. Maduro blames Venezuela’s problems on U.S. sanctions and an “economic war” led by political adversaries.
The Navy does not keep exact numbers on the nationalities of patients, who are pre-screened by local authorities, instead focusing on treating anyone who needs care. When Reuters visited on Tuesday, about one in five patients was Venezuelan.
Most patients receive care on land in two clinics set up in schools in Riohacha. Those getting operations are flown by helicopter to the ship.
Lainer Sivira, 29, was shaken by her first-ever helicopter flight, cradling her 3-year-old son, Enderson, who needs a hernia operation, on her knees.
“I’m happy because I would never have the money,” said Sivira, a Venezuelan native whose son was born in Colombia.
Enderson, boisterous in a striped T-shirt and shorts, was delighted with his high-seas adventure. He smiled broadly when greeted by the interpreter who accompanied the family.
Hernia repairs, along with cataract and dental operations, are the most common procedures because patients generally require minimal follow-up care and the operations can have a huge economic impact, allowing once-incapacitated people to return to work.
“There’s a ripple effect,” said Captain Kevin Buckley, who manages the mission’s medical care. “We’re only here for five days, so we want to make sure we can capture people and make an impact in their lives.”
In one operating theater, an elderly man was having a hernia in his groin repaired.
Three doctors huddled around an incision low on his stomach, sewing a mesh insert into his abdominal wall.
His general anesthesia began to wear off as his incision was sutured, but an interpreter was there to reassure him the procedure was nearly finished.
Karol Salinas, 26, from Riohacha, was nervous. She was having her impacted upper wisdom teeth extracted via small incisions in her face.
“I know they’ll have to really slice me open, but I need to get them out,” she said.
A few minutes later, she was wheeled down to the operating room, flashing a nervous smile as the doors closed behind her. (Reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Helen Murphy and Peter Cooney)