From Skies to Seas: Airman Assists Humanitarian Aid Aboard the USNS Mercy

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Alexzandra Gracey
  • 374th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

It is a rare opportunity for any U.S. Air Force Airmen to board a ship and work alongside the U.S. Navy and other nations in a joint environment. So, when U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Sammi-Joy Severino learned of an open spot on the hospital ship United States Naval Ship Mercy to provide life-saving, humanitarian aid, she was eager to secure it.

The Mercy is a 1,000 bed hospital ship homeported in San Diego, California and the third U.S. Navy ship to hold the name, according to the official U.S. Navy website. The Mercy mainly functions to provide surgical and medical services for U.S. service members and disaster and humanitarian relief efforts across the globe. In October 2023, the ship set sail to participate in the 19th iteration of Pacific Partnership 24-1, the largest annual, multinational humanitarian mission in the Indo-Pacific theater. PP 24-1 is designed to strengthen disaster relief response capabilities and fortify relationships with participating nations and humanitarian organizations, while also providing welfare, engineering and medical services.

In November 2023, the Mercy arrived in Honiara, the Solomon Islands capital city. Severino quickly put her comprehensive training as an ultrasound technologist to use.

“We were sent to the Solomon Islands for two weeks to assist in the 17th Pacific World Games,” she said. “We were there for medical assists, but then also, we were assisting residents of Solomon Islands to come aboard the ship and have life-changing surgery.”

Severino and personnel from other U.S. military branches, as well as other allied nations and Solomon Island professionals, worked tirelessly for weeks to provide surgical and medical services to as many island residents as possible. Her daily role was to perform ultrasounds, a noninvasive procedure that produces images of scanned areas of the body. From her time working in radiology as a civilian and then as an ultrasound technologist as an Airman, she had the necessary skills to provide patients with the care they needed.

“On the ship, we would get roughly 40 patients a day, for two weeks. Every patient that came on board, we imaged with either the x-ray, ultrasound, or CT,” she explained. “They would come to us first for imaging, depending on what surgery they were getting, and then they would go and get put in a ward, and then their surgery would be the next day.”

According to her, there is a distinct contrast between the ultrasound services in routine patient care and while out on humanitarian missions. In an office setting, a team will usually know the patient, their medical history, and what to expect. However, while on missions like PP 24-1, teams face conditions that fluctuate in severity, in unfamiliar patients who have little to no recorded medical history. In the latter scenario, medical teams are wholly responsible for pathology, the study and diagnosis of disease, and for carrying out the best course of treatment for the patient in a concise, quick timeline.

Severino shared that being able to practice pathology was an invaluable experience not always available for those in her career field.

“Working in routine care, you don't see a lot of pathology in our job,” she highlighted. “It's a lot of extremes that we're not used to in active duty, or even just our country’s lifestyle. So, seeing all the differences where we can actually have the surgery to save their life was very different for us.”

She stated the care she and her team facilitated was something the island residents otherwise might not have ever been able to receive under normal circumstances. Some had even lived with their varying conditions for many years before the opportunity to receive treatment arose. Although she and her team were constantly busy, every day proved to be rewarding and educational, and getting residents life-saving care was one of the most impactful experiences Severino had aboard the Mercy.

“A lot of these patients didn't have proper health care, so this was a once-in-a-lifetime surgery for them,” she said. “They would have never known if they didn't come aboard the ship. So, all these services coming together for this huge humanitarian mission saved a lot of people’s lives.”

In conjunction with providing care, Severino expressed how beneficial working alongside other branches of military was while on the ship. She was able to experience different customs and courtesies and even picked up some knowledge about computed tomography, or CT, scanning just by being able to watch U.S. Navy hospital corpsmen perform the procedures.

“We got to see a lot of different exams that we're not used to, so it helped broaden my experience and educate me on different medicine styles,” she said. “There's definitely a couple of tricks that I learned.”

She wholly advocates for other U.S. airmen to seize opportunities to work alongside the U.S. Navy, sharing that they are an exceptional source of medical knowledge to learn from.

Overall, PP 24-1 resulted in over 392 medical engagements and 94 surgeries for the people of the Solomon Islands, according to the official U.S. Navy Pacific Fleet website. Severino expressed that while providing her ultrasound technologist skills aboard the Mercy, she enhanced flexibility in her skills, effectively worked alongside other countries and branches of service, and learned how crucial the output of disaster relief and humanitarian aid can be to other nations.

“I'm very fortunate to have gone and experienced this. I’d love to do it again,” Severino remarked. “Even though it was only two weeks, I’ll cherish it for the rest of my life.”