USNS Comfort
USNS Comfort anchored off the coast of La Brea, Trinidad and Tobago in early September, 2019. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class, Morgan K. Nall.)

By Kristine A. Garland

The U.S. Navy’s hospital ship, USNS Comfort, recently returned from a five-month humanitarian mission during which dental staff provided nearly 10,000 procedures at 12 mission stops.

The ship offered both dental and medical services in Southern and Central America and the Caribbean, including Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Grenada, Haiti, Jamaica, Panama, Peru, Saint Lucia, St. Kitts and Nevis, and Trinidad and Tobago.

The health team aboard the Comfort provided care on the ship and at land-based medical sites. Partner nation active-duty service member dentists from Mexico, Brazil, Chile, and Canada also assisted.

The ship carried nearly 200 medical professionals, including many dentists. Humanitarian services offered included adult and pediatric medicine, dentistry, optometry, physical therapy, dermatology, and general surgery. 

At each of the 12 stops, the staff saw between 800-1200 patients. Dental services provided included a visual exam, cleanings, fillings, and extractions.

One of the dentists aboard Comfort for this deployment was Lieutenant Commander Julie Suguitan, a pediatric dentist, who has been in the Navy for ten years. Suguitan was in dental school when she made the decision to start a dental career in the Navy.

Dentists aboard Comfort provided dental services at the medical engagement site of each country. Medical engagement sites are typically set up in existing infrastructure, and conditions are often austere—at times in open-air buildings with dirt floors and without air conditioning or plumbing.

Helicopters bring supplies in on pallets, and the dental staff typically spend a day unpacking and setting up all supplies for a week of dental care at each medical engagement site.

Pediatric Patient
Lieutenant Commander Julie Suguitan, U.S. Navy pediatric dentist, with a young patient during the USNS Comfort’s recent deployment.

On a given day of patient care, dentists wake around 4:00 am and take a helicopter or small boat from the ship to the medical engagement site ashore. Patients begin lining up outdoors overnight for care, so treatment starts promptly and runs continuously until all patients can be accommodated that day.

In addition to the work being done at the medical engagement site, oral surgeons saw more complicated cases in the operating room aboard Comfort. After hours of continuous patient care, dentists at the medical engagement site would then take a small boat or helicopter back to Comfort, eat a quick dinner, and go to bed to be ready to do it all again the next morning.

One of the dentists aboard Comfort for this deployment was Lieutenant Commander Julie Suguitan. 

One of the dentists aboard Comfort for this deployment was Lieutenant Commander Julie Suguitan, a pediatric dentist, who has been in the Navy for ten years. Suguitan was in dental school when she made the decision to start a dental career in the Navy.

“The armed forces offer scholarships to pay for dental school in exchange for a four-year commitment to active duty service as a military dentist upon graduation,” she told Incisor. “After five years of active duty service, I was awarded an additional scholarship to attend residency to specialize in pediatric dentistry.”

Now, more than ten years later, she enjoys her Navy career for reasons beyond the scholarship opportunities she received.

“I enjoy the opportunity to serve as part of something bigger than just myself,” she explained. While she had previously deployed on other ships, this was her first deployment aboard Comfort.

“The USNS Comfort was very different in that it is not a US warship but rather a floating hospital, or ‘MTF’ (military treatment facility). The purposes of these two types of ships are very different and thus provide two completely unique experiences for a dentist,” she said.

“Being that many of our patients were refugees with extremely limited resources, they expressed immense gratitude for our care.”
— Lieutenant Commander Julie Suguitan

The type of patients Lt. Cmdr. Suguitan and other Comfort dentists have seen are very different from the typical patient they treat in routine dental care for active-duty Navy personnel and their families.

“We typically see young, healthy active duty service members,” Lt. Cmdr. Suguitan explained. Active-duty personnel are required to have annual dental exams, so they are typically in good dental health.

In contrast, the majority of the patients seen by Comfort dentists during deployment were people who have little-to-no access to dental care.

“For many patients, it was their first and only dental visit,” she explained. “Being that many of our patients were refugees with extremely limited resources, they expressed immense gratitude for our care. It was certainly a team effort, and—even after all the hard work—very rewarding to help those in dire need.”

Since 2007, personnel involved in the USNS Comfort deployments have treated more than 488,000 patients, performed 5,500 surgeries, completed more than 100 engineering projects, and conducted countless other assistance activities. 

Author: Contributing writer Kristine A. Garland received her MA in Journalism from New York University’s Science, Health and Environmental Program. She serves in the U.S. Navy as a public affairs officer.

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