BREMERTON, Wash. (NNS) -- A Naval Hospital Bremerton (NHB) ophthalmologist deployed aboard USNS Mercy (T-AH 19) for Pacific Partnership 2012 (PP12) helped bring eyesight to the blind throughout the four and a half month deployment that concluded, Sept. 14.
From Indonesia to the Philippines, Vietnam and Cambodia, Cmdr. Brice Nicholson, NHB staff ophthalmologist, along with two eye surgical techs, Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Nicholas Brown, also from NHB ophthalmology clinic and HM2 Alan Kampert from Naval Medical Center San Diego Ophthalmology clinic, and one non-government organizations (NGO) ophthalmologist, Dr. John Jarstad, head of the Latter-day Saints charities personnel, performed almost 300 surgeries during PP12. Those surgeries represented approximately one-third of the more than 900 surgeries conducted overall during the mission.
"We interacted with physicians and other medical personnel from Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Cambodia. Most of the patients treated were legally blind in both eyes, either from cataracts (A cloudiness or opacity that can cause a decrease in vision and may lead to eventual blindness) or pterygia (an abnormal mass of tissue that obstructs vision by growing over the cornea). Within 24-48 hours these patients were able to see again. We also performed strabismus (a condition that eyes do not point in the same direction) and other ophthalmic surgeries," said Nicholson, a Baltimore, Md. native with over 18 years of Navy experience.
"It was gratifying to provide care for patients with a very curable disease who would otherwise be blind for the rest of their lives," stated Nicholson.
PP12 set sail May 1 to continue the largest annual humanitarian and civic action (HCA) mission in the Asia-Pacific region and returned four-and-one-half months later to San Diego, Calif. The main overlapping goal of PP12 was to use the HCA mission to bring together U.S. military and civilian personnel, host and partner nations, NGOs and international agencies to build stronger relationships and develop disaster response capabilities.
Mercy averaged several weeks in each country they visited, and as a medical doctor who specializes in eye and vision care, Nicholson was busy in every port conducting surgical civic action programs that had him with host nation ophthalmologists screening patients in local villages and towns at the beginning of each week.
"We spent approximately two weeks in each port. We typically screened about 200 to 300 patients over the course of six to eight hours. Overall we screened at least 1,000. We then operated on these patients every day until we left port to steam to the next location. We operated on nearly 280," said Nicholson, noting that PP12 was also about the exchange of ideas and learning to work together with host nations, which happened during every port call.
"I spent a great deal of time working with host nation ophthalmologists, both on the ship and in their own hospitals. (For example) We were able to bring Indonesian residents and fellows onboard to work with us for two weeks. It was a great exchange of information. Our (USNS Mercy) command asked for contact info and stated they would like to have continued relations with these host nation physicians. I hope to be able to return to continue with these relations," Nicholson said.
As has been the case in the past six Pacific Partnership missions, there were several cases that stood out for Nicholson when providing humanitarian assistance. The most memorable part of the deployment for him was helping a little girl with a debilitating iris defect.
"There was an 11-year old girl with an iris abnormality and cataracts. Her iris looked like a cat's pupil looks and she was ostracized. I was able to surgically reform her iris and remove her cataracts. She wouldn't even communicate with me before surgery, but was all smiles after we took off her bandages," Nicholson shared, noting that the overall mission meant much more that the number of surgeries done or the approximately 49,000 people treated.
"PP12 wasn't all about doing as many surgeries as possible. There was a big emphasis on working closely with host nation personnel, and having a good subject matter expert exchange with them," said Nicholson, who combined doing surgery with information exchange on a number of times.
"We did cataract surgery, strabismus surgery, eviscerations and pterygium surgery. Dr. Jarstad and I were both able to bring new technologies to some host nation clinics. Dr. Jarstad had a portable ultrasound machine and performed the first phaco cataract surgery in the Manado Indonesia government hospital. I brought tissue glue and helped the Cambodian ophthalmologist to perform the first pterygium graft surgery in Cambodia using tissue glue," explained Nicholson.
Along with the 1,200-member crew and representatives from the U.S. military, there were also four U.S. agencies, 13 partner nations and 28 nongovernmental organizations, providing support on Pacific Partnership 2012.
"I recommended this mission for anyone who enjoys humanitarian work and isn't afraid to leave their 'sphere of comfort.' You have to make do without all of the niceties available to us at an military treatment facility. But I feel this makes you a better surgeon in the end. 'Necessity is the mother of invention' was my motto for the PP12 mission," said Nicholson.
Through active engagement with host nation officials and militaries, subject matter expert exchanges, civil action projects and medical exchanges, the mission continued to reinforce regional partnerships and collective abilities needed to respond to natural disasters. PP12 was sponsored by the U.S. Navy Pacific Fleet and completed its seventh year.
In addition to aiding the health, security, and improvement of disaster response capabilities of the host nations, the partnerships forged through Pacific Partnership missions help to ensure that the international community is better prepared to synchronize and function together as a coordinated force when disaster strikes.
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