MASON CITY — His recent experience with Project HOPE put Dr. Sam Hunt in touch with people in Southeast Asia who still have tuberculosis, rarely see a doctor and perform manual labor in rice paddies, the retired Mason City physician said.
“It’s something I think about nearly every day,” said Hunt, who retired from active practice in April. “It broadens your perspective on life and the world we live in.”
Hunt, 60, served from May 20 to Aug. 12 on the U.S. Naval Service ship Mercy, a Naval hospital ship. He and other civilian medical personnel provided care at temporary clinics in coastal communities of Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Cambodia.
Deployed every two years for humanitarian medical missions, the Naval vessel carried as many as 1,300 personnel during his mission, Hunt said. Project HOPE, a civilian non-governmental organization, was a participant in Pacific Partnership 2012, an annual U.S. Navy Pacific Fleet humanitarian and civic assistance mission.
“Everywhere we went we were treated like rock stars,” he said. “People were anxious to have their pictures taken with us. They would thank us respectfully even when there wasn’t anything we could do to relieve their problem.”
Teams of 50 to 70 healthcare providers would man clinics for two weeks at a time in each country they visited. The clinics, built by a team of civil engineers, were usually in rural areas where people had limited access to medical care.
Most of the people were rice farmers — hardworking, industrious people, Hunt said. They lived in small villages in primitive conditions.
“We took bottled water and were advised not to eat the local food.”
In Indonesia, the clinic was located on the island of Siau, which has a population of 40,000.
“I don’t think they’d ever seen white people before,” Hunt said.
Indonesia was the only place the healthcare teams stayed overnight on the island rather than going back on the ship.
Medical teams included doctors, nurses, dentists, optometrists, pharmacists, administrative staff and a few force protection personnel. Veterinarians were on hand to care for large and small animals in the villages.
Clinic hours were 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Patients would line up hours ahead of time and were served on a first-come, first-served basis. Their problems ranged from arthritis, a common ailment, to advanced tuberculosis.
“It made the experience challenging,” Hunt said.
The healthcare staff also spent time educating local healthcare givers about the importance of hygiene and other topics, he said.
A surgical team provided surgical care on the ship following a careful screening of candidates.
“They had to be somewhat selective about what they’d do,” Hunt said. “People had to be able to recover in four to five days.”
On the days when the ship was in transit to another country, usually five to seven days, Hunt was assigned to “sick call,” attending to ship personnel who were sick. He guessed he saw 15 to 40 people a day on sick call.
On land, Hunt ate pre-packaged military meals. Hot meals were served on a mess deck of the ship for 300 to 400 people at a time.
Hunt slept on a metal rack stacked bunk bed-style in an area with 50 to 60 others people.
“The toughest part for me was the communal living,” Hunt said. “The alarm clocks would start going off at 4 a.m.”
The military provided force protection for the Mercy, the third-largest trauma center in the United States when fully activated.
It was equipped with seven or eight operating rooms, X-ray equipment, CT scanners, ultrasound equipment and a laboratory.
Most of the people on board were Navy military personnel, although Marine, Air Force, Army and international military personnel were also stationed on the ship, Hunt said.
Over the Fourth of July holiday, Hunt was given four days of liberty, the same as the military people. He opted to stay on the ship at night, going ashore in the Philippines during the day to go sightseeing.
Looking back on the experience, Hunt said he would encourage other physicians to consider Project HOPE.
“I feel I received more than I gave,” he said.
Founded in 1958, Project HOPE (Health Opportunities for People Everywhere) is dedicated to providing lasting solutions to health crises, with the mission of helping people to help themselves.
It began as SS HOPE, the world’s first peacetime hospital ship, but is now conducted through land-based medical training and health education programs across five continents.