Puerto Barrios, Guatemala –
It was another humid day in Puerto Barrios, Guatemala, and there was the smell of a rainstorm brewing in the air. The light beige and aged building of the Japan-Guatemala Friendship Hospital became more prominent as Chief Hospital Corpsman Shawn Burnette, from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Hospital Corpsman 1st Class Rolly Domingo, from Ewabeach, Hawaii, passed the front gate and arrived at the entrance to the hospital. They walked down the dimly lit hallways, hearing the echoes of footsteps as staff members crossed their paths while entering and leaving rooms.
After passing a few wards and entering the maintenance room, the team met with the hospital maintenance team. Burnette and Domingo began asking questions about the hospital’s biomedical (biomed) equipment and how the team performed maintenance. The questioning faces of the hospital maintenance personnel caused the Comfort team to quickly realize that the staff had partial knowledge of their biomedical equipment. Burnette and Domingo were going to have their norms challenged and eyes opened to new ways of doing their job.
Every foundation has a cornerstone, the first piece that creates stability to build upon. Day one was that cornerstone. The Comfort duo started at the beginning and aimed to teach the maintenance team how to fix equipment, while keeping a consistent schedule of preventative maintenance.
Continuing Promise 2022 aims to promote peace, stability and prosperity in the Caribbean, Central and South America. To further that mission, biomed technicians, assigned to the Military Sealift Command hospital ship USNS Comfort (T-AH 20), started their first information exchange with those working at the Japan-Guatemala Friendship Hospital.
“I had the U.S. standard thinking process going into this, because this is my first humanitarian engagement, especially a sidebyside,” said Burnette. “So, day one I had the mindset of, order the part, wait for the part and put the part in. These countries don’t have that luxury nor do they have the time to wait. On the spot means get it up and running, and that is what we did. Whatever you can do to make it work is what they are looking for in the hospital to ensure the patient care continues to flow effectively. Getting in that mindset during these humanitarian missions is vital.”
After a long day of evaluating medical equipment, Darwin Arana, the maintenance supervisor from Puerto Barrios, was excited to teach the biomed team about his area of expertise. Arana took Burnette and Domingo outside the hospital building, it just finished raining so the tall grass was laced with little droplets of rain, and as the group moved to an air conditioning unit the droplets moved from the grass to the duo’s black steel toe boots. Arana displayed the A/C unit, which was cooling an empty ward room, and started showcasing his expertise. He began to pull out meters and tools to test for leaks in the unit. Arana’s knowledge of heat, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) units benefitted the biomed team, and Burnette and Domingo were amazed with the wealth of knowledge they learned from the subject matter expert.
“They taught us how to do maintenance on HVAC,” said Domingo. “That was one of the things I was hoping for learn more about since refrigeration wasn’t taught during our schooling.”
As the sun set on the first day, Burnette and Domingo headed back to the ship. As the water and cool breeze rushed pass them on the boat taking them to the Comfort, Burnette reflected on how happy he was with the first day’s progress. They had the challenging task of training the maintenance staff and repairing the hospital equipment. The pair was able to assess the situation and ensure they brought back the necessary supplies for the following days’ work.
“We went through each area of the hospital to see what was broken and what resources we could provide physically from our ship to the hospital to get them up and running,” Burnette said.
With the cornerstone of day one placed and positive relationships forming between the Sailors and the technicians, Burnette and Domingo had a better understanding of the mission in front of them. They had to think of creative solutions that would incorporate the limited parts at the hospital and the ship to fix the older equipment.
“By the end of day two, we were able to get 37 pieces of equipment up and running,” said Burnette. “Since the locals rely on what they have around them, their foundation for equipment maintenance was very limited. The biggest thing was teaching the technicians how to maintain their equipment and creating a program to teach them how to change smaller parts to avoid big costly repairs.”
On day three, best practices, techniques and knowledge took root. The HVAC technicians began to understand the complexities of the electrical equipment and, if something was to happen to it, how to fix it quickly. In return, the technicians were able to teach the biomed team how the air conditioning units work and how to do maintenance on them.
“We were able to give them modernization techniques for their equipment,” said Burnette. “Teach them critical care, maintenance and user level critical care techniques to independently work on their equipment without hesitation, especially for equipment in the intensive care unit.”
Burnette and the biomed team intend to use the knowledge provided by the HVAC technicians to teach those on the ship that many may not understand with those systems. It was much more than just understanding the cooling systems. The knowledge of being resourceful and relying on the parts readily available was valuable information added Burnette.
“On the spot maintenance and repair during these humanitarian missions is crucial,” said Burnette. “We need to be able to pass this information to each country and while continuing to learn new techniques and foster new partnerships.”
With Comfort’s time in Guatemala coming to a close, the biomed team wanted to make sure that when the ship sailed, Arana and his team not only had immediate work-arounds for their problems, but also solutions that would last.
“Giving them a long-term solution is better than fixing one thing at a time and creating a temporary solution,” said Burnette.
As training continued, Burnette and Domingo put Arana and his team to the test by intentionally adding bugs to the equipment to see how the technicians would respond. Burnette was happy to see how much the technicians learned and grew from just a few days of working sidebyside. The residents were able to solve the problem in under five minutes, according to Burnette. The final day ended with a short tour around the ship so the local technicians could see some different equipment that may benefit the hospital.
“It might’ve been a simple fix to us,” said Domingo. “But to them it was a huge difference.”
According to both Burnette and Domingo, the exchange was a huge success, especially since it was the first time in the Continuing Promise mission that biomed had a side-by-side event with the residents of the host country.
“I would say this is the most impactful thing that’s ever happened to me in my life,” said Burnette. “I hope this remains from our side in biomed. Continuing this is vital for success.”
U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command/U.S. 4th Fleet supports U.S. Southern Command’s joint and combined military operations by employing maritime forces in cooperative maritime security operations to maintain access, enhance interoperability, and build enduring partnerships in order to enhance regional security and promote peace, stability and prosperity in the Caribbean, Central and South American region.