ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Venezuela's economic crisis has led to food shortages and hyperinflation. It's also caused the health system to collapse. That's one reason more than a million Venezuelans have fled to neighboring Colombia, which has strained Colombia's health system. As John Otis reports, the U.S. is offering some help aboard a U.S. Navy hospital ship.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).
JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Here in the coastal town of Riohacha in Colombia near the Venezuelan border, patients gathered at a makeshift reception center. Many are Venezuelan migrants with cataracts, gallstones and other problems that have gone untreated back home.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Any history of asthma, bronchitis or pneumonia?
UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER #1: (Speaking Spanish).
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Nada.
OTIS: U.S. Navy personnel help them fill out medical forms. Those scheduled for surgery were then flown on helicopters to the USNS Comfort 15 miles offshore in the Caribbean. The Comfort is a former oil tanker that's been converted into a floating hospital. It's often deployed to disaster zones like Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria last year.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Can I have the (unintelligible).
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Unintelligible) all right.
OTIS: Surgeons worked from 12 operating rooms positioned near the center of the ship to minimize the rolling effect of ocean waves. One of their patients was 2-year-old Santiago Efer, who suffers from a hernia and an undescended testicle that's lodged in his abdomen. His father, Francisco, fled to Colombia after he was unable to secure treatment for his son in Venezuela.
FRANCISCO EFER: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: "There were power outages in the operating room and no air conditioning," he says. "The clinic kept deteriorating." Venezuela was once an oil-rich country, but amid corruption and mismanagement by the authoritarian government, the IMF predicts Venezuela's economy will contract by 18 percent this year. Among the hardest hit sectors is health care, says Rafael Gottenger, a Venezuelan doctor onboard the Comfort.
RAFAEL GOTTENGER: Tuberculosis, for example - in the last few years, it's about 2,300 percent increase. Malaria - it's in the sky. HIV patients are dying because there is no medication to treat HIV. Cancer patients have no cancer medications.
OTIS: Gottenger is one of 14 Venezuelan doctors living in the U.S. who volunteered for the medical mission.
ARIEL KAUFMAN: They already given him some oral medications. That's why he's asleep.
OTIS: Among them is Ariel Kaufman, a urologist who moved from Caracas to Miami four years ago. He says that working aboard the Comfort is a way to reconnect with his homeland.
KAUFMAN: It's the best feeling. I've been practicing medicine for, like, 25, 30 years. Nothing fills our heart more than helping these patients even with a small surgery, with touching their hands, holding them. It's an amazing experience.
OTIS: Geopolitics are also at play. The U.S. and China are competing for influence in South America, and the Comfort's mission came just two months after a Chinese hospital ship visited Venezuela. Amanda Antonio is a U.S. Navy doctor.
LIEUTENANT AMANDA ANTONIO: We're doing this from a, you know, sort of a hearts and minds standpoint. So we're trying to show that not just the civilians but that the military - the American military cares about the people down here.
OTIS: There was only so much that the doctors could do during the Comfort's weeklong stay near the Venezuelan border.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: (Speaking Spanish).
UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER #2: She's saying God bless you.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: Gracias. Muchas gracias.
OTIS: But the patients thanked the medical staff, then prepared for the flight back to shore. For NPR News, I'm John Otis aboard the USNS Comfort off the coast of northern Colombia.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE CINEMATIC ORCHESTRA'S "THE AWAKENING OF A WOMAN")
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