U.S. hospital ship to help Venezuelan migrants in Colombia until Sunday

U.S. Southern Command mission helps families in need in Santa Marta

By Cody Weddle - Colombia/Venezuela Correspondent, Andrea Torres - Digital Reporter/Producer

SANTA MARTA, Colombia - Five-year-old Fabian Pimentel suffers from an umbilical hernia. A little portion of his intestine protrudes through his abdominal muscles. It is making his belly button stick out.

Fabian's mother, Isaid Pimentel, said she has seen it grow. Fabian was born in Venezuela and he and his parents migrated to Colombia, where authorities estimate there are more than 1.4 million Venezuelans.

Dr. Donald Lucas was able to help him. The pediatric surgeon arrived at Santa Marta in a U.S. Navy hospital ship that is on a humanitarian mission aiming to help refugees like Fabian. Lucas said an umbilical hernia can cause serious problems. 

"It can damage the intestines, sometimes causing a piece of the intestines to die, which can be really life-threatening," Lucas said. 

That won't be happening to Fabian. Lucas said his surgery is among the most common procedures performed on the USNS Comfort, which has been on a five-month mission with stops in South America, Central America and the Caribbean since June.

Capt. Patrick Amersbach, commanding officer, USNS Comfort, said in a statement that they worked closely with the U.S. embassy and Santa Marta's Ministry of Health. The ship docked Sunday in Santa Marta and will be helping migrants for seven days.

"We're doing something really important here, and I'm excited be a part of bringing this opportunity to Santa Marta on this next leg of our mission," Ambersbach said

The U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command & U.S. 4th Fleet released this photo o fht eUSNS Comfort's arrival in Santa Marta, Colombia, Sunday.

More than 900 personnel, including volunteers from non-governmental organizations, are doing their best to treat as many patients as possible. They recently completed a mission in Colon, Panama. 

"Anyone who comes to get in line for us, we will do our best to see," said Lt. Comdr. Daniel Dean, one of the two temporary medical treatment site officers-in-charge

Venezuelans in Colombia are in desperate need. Eduardo Stein, the United Nations special envoy, warned Tuesday in Bogotá that the international response to the crisis is falling short. He called on donors to contribute $315 million to Colombia's effort to help the refugees.

"This is a voice of alarm before a situation that has totally surpassed the nation's capacities," Stein said. "It must move those nations that have historically been able to assist internationally."

According to U.S. Southern Command, this stop marks the sixth Comfort visit to Colombia and the seventh to the region since 2007. This stop is set to end Sunday with a closing ceremony. 

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