Tendered To The Mercy

3By Anne Baer
Photos by Dr. Hogge and The US Navy

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The Navy tender is lowered in to the water with a full load of USNS Mercy members headed to shore for triage and setups.

It’s 5:30 AM and the converted oil tanker gently rocks as Dr. Larry Hogge, his wife, and the rest of the health team muster to review the day’s onshore clinic schedule. The group, aboard the USNS Mercy, is already showered, dressed, and fed, with supplies packed for a full day of providing clinical services. Once volunteers count off in teams, they disembark and board one of the tenders—a small boat used to ferry passengers and light cargo—to the shore and the first clinic site. The term “clinic” is a loose definition, as that day’s site may range from an established structure which might provide electricity to a string of pop-up shelters to keep the tropical rain off the team’s portable equipment. Either way, as the teams pull in to port and jump in the vans to carry them to that day’s site, they are warmly greeted by large crowds of host nation citizens, ready to receive needed medical and dental care.

The USNS Mercy is one of two US naval hospital ships that sail the world. Its counterpart, the USNS Comfort, focuses on the Caribbean and Latin and South America, while the USNS Mercy cruises the waters of the Pacific, calling at ports in the Pacific Rim. The USNS Mercy’s motto is to “prepare in calm to respond in crisis,” whether that includes providing medical care in the wake of a typhoon, tsunami, or military conflict. At other times, their aim is two-fold: provide clinical services to citizens of host nations and engage in subject matter expert exchange (SMEE) activities, recognizing that both visitor and host nations have something to offer and learn from one another.

Bougainville locals wait in the rain for medical screening and treatment at a community health engagement as part of Pacific Partnership 2015.

Rain, storm, wind or heat, long lines of people waited to get treatment. Some traveled 3 – 4 hours to make the trip, and many were still turned away because of the overwhelming turn outs.

This past April, USNS Mercy started a 6-month cruise flagged as the Pacific Partnership, visiting four countries in the Asia Pacific region. The team was comprised of health professionals from the US, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Malaysia and Australia, including the naval crew that operates the ship. Dr. Hogge joined the USNS Mercy in May for a 10-week stint as a team leader to a team of over 1,000 sailors and volunteers visiting Papua New Guinea, Fiji, the Philippines, and Micronesia. “It was a great time in my professional life to do something like this. I have practiced dentistry in Logan [UT] for 33 years. After working alongside me for the past couple of years, my son recently took over the practice. With the practice in good hands, I was able to leave.”

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Shaun Hope and Dr. Hogge with young teenager they had just treated in Sigma, Philippines.

It didn’t take much convincing for Shaun, Dr. Hogge’s wife, to join in as well. After hearing a physician speak about his experience on the USNS Comfort at Dr. Hogge’s Rotary Club, Dr. Hogge was intrigued. He talked to the speaker after the meeting and got contact information from him. “When I told my wife I wanted to do this, she thought I was crazy but was very supportive,” Dr. Hogge states. “We filled out forms, got shots, and the next thing we knew, we were on a boat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean!” Volunteers on the USNS Mercy do require another essential component: a sponsor. Since the hospital ship is considered a working naval vessel, volunteers are teamed with a non-governmental organization (NGO). NGOs serve as civilian partners with the Navy’s humanitarian missions, and are the major suppliers of civilian volunteers. In addition, the NGO may donate pallets of medical and dental supplies, which was the case with Dr. Hogge. His sponsoring group was Latter-Day Saints Charities (LDSC) while his recommendation came from a colleague, Dr. Bluth, who initially encouraged him to participate in charitable dentistry. When asked how he got started giving back via his dental skills, Dr. Hogge recalls, “It was years ago when a local oral surgeon, Dr. Bluth, invited me to join him in Chihuahua, Mexico on one of his many trips south of the border. I had wondered, ‘Why does he do that? How can he afford to be away?’ When I asked him about it, he said, ‘Come and see!’ Since then, I’ve loved being part of groups doing great things. To paraphrase Helen Keller, I long to accomplish a great and noble task, but found my chief duty was to do humble tasks as if they were great and noble.” In a wonderful turn of events, Dr. Bluth happened to be aboard the USNS Comfort, USNS Mercy’s sister ship, at the same time the Hogges were sailing on the USNS Mercy.

Onboard the USNS Mercy, a full hospital and dental clinic serve the more serious cases encountered onshore. In the dental clinic alone, there are six operatories-four dedicated to general dentistry, and the remainder for oral surgery. Dr. Hogge explains how the hospital ship works in conjunction with the onshore clinics, “Once onshore, the medical team did all triage and assigned patients to the right specialist: physician, dentist, pediatrician, OB/GYN, pharmacist, or eye doctor, giving each patient a unique wristband to help identify which team they should visit. Purple wrist bands meant dentistry. Each specialty had its own small tent for treatment. The dental team usually had four to six dental chairs set up. The Navy crew prep the site the day before so the volunteers would arrive and get set up to see patients, about 150-200 per day.”

The medical and dental teams visited about twenty different clinics during their trip with the USNS Mercy. Describing what they encountered, Dr. Hogge outlined what procedures were done onshore versus what was referred to the floating hospital.

“We did a lot of extractions, oral cancer screenings, and oral hygiene instruction as there were dental hygienists with us at all times. If people needed fillings, they would go to the ship. We also sent patients to the ship who needed x-rays, or a CAT scan, panoramic x-ray or biopsy. We found cancer on a fairly frequent basis and other maladies I had only read about in dental school. It was a real education.”

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The dental team after a wet and rainy day doing dental clinic at a park in Suva, Fiji.

According to Dr. Hogge, “One of the best things on this trip was to get with host country dentists and doctors and work with them on dental technique-like giving good and effective anesthesia. We also teamed up with the local dental therapists (similar to dental hygienists) and worked on how to do a difficult extraction or give an injection.” Dr. Hogge also thoroughly enjoyed traveling with a large, multinational team and working alongside dentists and volunteers from many countries. “To my left would be a dentist from Malaysia, to my right a dentist from Australia or Japan,” Dr. Hogge details, “and it provided a great atmosphere.” As for communication, both within the team and onshore with the locals, Dr. Hogge explains, “Local people knew when the USNS Mercy team would be in the village and would help as translators. At one point to make it easier we took printed pictures of procedures or oral cancer victims with us, showing what we wanted the patient to learn or do, or to help educate the locals on the consequences of tobacco use or chewing betel nut.”

After ten weeks afloat, the Hogges packed up and headed home—but they are already thinking about another tour. “This is a great thing to do and I’ve already been asked if I would go again. The answer to that is a definite, ‘Yes!’ I met some wonderful doctors and nurses and felt like I helped make a difference.” As for encouraging other dental professionals, he says, “Do something. It doesn’t have to be big. I wish I would have started earlier in my career and had my children involved. Give a little bit of your time and start now.

Click here to see the original article.

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