U.S. hospital ship prepares to save lives in Indo-Pacific

A U.S. Navy ship called the Mercy is unlike most others. It’s essentially a mobile hospital on the high seas. And through June, it’s the focal point of the Pacific Partnership, the largest disaster response–preparation mission in the Indo-Pacific.

Despite its size — it’s bigger than just about every land-based hospital in the United States — the Mercy can deploy quickly. With up to 1,000 patient beds, it can provide top-flight medical care to hundreds of thousands in a crisis. The ship is part of a partnership exercise that includes more than 800 military and civilian personnel from the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Australia, France, Peru and Japan.

“The challenges we face with natural and manmade disasters do not respect borders or national sovereignty,” said U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Don Gabrielson, who oversees the mission.

People carrying stretcher with patient away from helicopter (U.S. Navy/Petty Officer 2nd Class Kelsey L. Adams)
Sailors tend to a simulated patient aboard the USNS Mercy as part of the 2018 Pacific Partnership. (U.S. Navy/Petty Officer 2nd Class Kelsey L. Adams)

In addition to disaster response drills, the Mercy and other Pacific Partnership vessels will send teams ashore to provide medical, engineering and other services. Stops in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Vietnam will help thousands on the ground. Partnership vessels will also travel to Pacific islands Yap and Palau.

Mike Mittelman, chief surgeon during a past Pacific Partnership, said the program develops a phenomenal sense of service. “When the junior sailors participate in missions like these, it changes their lives,” he said.

In addition to the Mercy, the U.S. Navy also operates the USNS Comfort, which in recent years has completed humanitarian tours in Latin American and Caribbean nations.

Composite photo with people working on medical patient lying on table (U.S. Navy/Petty Officer 2nd Class Kelsey L. Adams) and two people working on communication equipment in suitcase (U.S. Navy/Petty Officer 3rd Class Cameron Pinske)
Hospital ship Mercy is equipped for surgery and ship-to-shore telemedicine. (Left: U.S. Navy/Petty Officer 2nd Class Kelsey L. Adams; Right: U.S. Navy/Petty Officer 3rd Class Cameron Pinske)

Pacific Partnership grew after the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, which devastated parts of Southeast Asia. The complex situation spurred countries to improve crisis coordination.

“We are excited about forging new friendships and deepening partnerships across the region,” said U.S. Navy Captain David Bretz.