A surge of patients who fled Venezuela showing up at US Navy ship during port visits

Medical staff aboard the U.S. Navy’s hospital ship Comfort said they are seeing a surge of patients who fled Venezuela on recent port stops in Ecuador, Peru, Costa Rica and Panama, where it was docked Thursday.

“I would say 25 to 30 percent of the patients I see in these primary clinics are Venezuelan migrants,” said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Jean Fortunado, a nurse practitioner.

“Many of them have had access to excellent care in the past,“ she said, but the exodus of medical professionals from Venezuela interrupted that care. “Some of them have gone without care for one year to three years,” Fortunado said.

Jose Mendoza, who was on the ship with his mother, Nelsy, 71, said they fled Caracas five years ago for Panama because of Venezuela’s political and economic insecurity.

His mother now needs cataract surgery, so when Mendoza learned the Navy’s hospital ship Comfort was making a port call, he made sure his mother made it aboard.

“Definitely we’ve been seeing a greater need in every stop, said Lt. Cmdr. Cesar Mojica Vasquez, a family physician serving on the Comfort. “A lot of chronic disease, like blood pressure that has not been taken care of.”

Vasquez said in many cases patients come to the Comfort “because they don’t have the means to pay for the care” they require.

McClatchy interviewed medical staff and patients when the Comfort was at the Cristobal port in Colon, Panama, while traveling with Navy Adm. Craig Faller, commander of U.S. Southern Command.

“Unfortunately the nation that needs the Comfort the most, Venezuela, we will not be able to conduct a port call. But what we will do is show the solidarity of like-minded democracies working together,” Faller said during a press conference aboard the ship.

Faller and Panama President Laurentino Cortizo toured the state-of-the-art medical facilities on the ship and talked with patients receiving dental and other routine care in white tents set up for on-ground clinics, where patients waited in plastic chairs to be seen by medical personnel.

The White House announcement this week that it would tighten the economic embargo on Venezuela could increase the number of Venezuelans who have fled to other countries, about 4 million so far, adding stress to medical facilities that are stretched to provide care for the local population in those countries.

Cortizo said he would like to see the ship return - and not just if the country sees additional migrants. “We need the Comfort for Panamanians,” Cortizo said during the press conference on the ship.

Faller left open the possibility he would seek funds from Congress to request additional port visits if there was a need. “As to specifics on what funds we will need ... we’ll have to do further analysis,” he said.

The Comfort will stay in Panama for a week and its medical staff will treat roughly 1,000 patients a day while there, military doctors said.

Most of the services — including dentistry, dermatology and physical therapy — will be provided at two ground clinics by the 1,500 sailors and staff from the ship. More complex procedures, like Nelsy Mendoza’s cataract surgery, are performed aboard the Comfort.

Tara Copp is the national military and veterans affairs correspondent for McClatchy. She has reported extensively through the Middle East, Asia and Europe to cover defense policy and its impact on the lives of service members. She was previously the Pentagon bureau chief for Military Times and a senior defense analyst for the U.S. Government Accountability Office. She is the author of the award-winning book “The Warbird: Three Heroes. Two Wars. One Story.”