Whenever time permitted, Cmdr. Mark Stewart strolled through the wards of the USNS Comfort, a three- football-fields-long former supertanker the U.S. Navy converted to a hospital ship in 1986.
For the past two months, this floating surgery center has been anchored about a mile offshore from the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince.
"(It was) one of the things I did to stay connected to why we were here," the 39-year-old former Modestan said. "Saying 'hi' to the patients. You learn names."
One day, he said, he saw a young boy who had lost a leg below the knee during the magnitude 7.0 earthquake that devastated one of the Western Hemisphere's poorest countries. The Jan. 12 quake killed an estimated 230,000 people, with thousands upon thousands of others suffering injuries.
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"I gave him a 'thumbs up,' " Stewart said. "Seeing him smile and giving me one back brought tears to my eyes."
That, he said, is a memory he will carry with him forever, even though the Comfort pulled up anchor and is on its way back to the U.S. mainland this week.
Stewart is a 1988 graduate of Downey High who, upon the recommendation of former U.S. Rep. Tony Coelho, went to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. A career officer, Stewart's profession has taken him to 35 countries — though none more heart-tugging than his assignment in Haiti.
The irony? He was in Chile — a country much better prepared for the magnitude 8.8 quake that struck there 46 days later — arranging training exercises when the Haitian earthquake hit. His orders soon changed, and he soon headed for Haiti aboard the Comfort, which cared for 871 patients and performed 843 surgeries in two months.
"The hospitals (that weren't damaged) were not able to do critical orthopedic surgeries," he said. "We sent teams in to assess patients and determine which could be helped."
He also scoped out places where the ship's helicopters could land to load patients for the flight to the ship. Some of those landing pads were a quarter of a mile or more from the hospitals, which, unlike many U.S. hospitals, don't have rooftop heliports.
"Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the world," Stewart said. "We landed on a soccer field. And we landed on the lawn of the presidential palace."
Some 244 civilians from the Red Cross, Operation Smile, and Johns Hopkins and UCLA medical centers worked alongside the ship's crew of 1,300 Navy personnel.
The grandson of a soldier who served in Gen. George S. Patton's Third Army during World War II, Stewart has been on mine countermeasure ships, amphibious ships, helicopter carriers and the like. He and wife Kandace are about to move from Green Bay, Wis., where he previously ran a Naval command center, to Mayport, Fla., where he's part of staff that will conduct training exercises in South America this summer.
The move to Mayport will be the family's sixth since daughter Kirsten was born eight years ago. Such is Navy life: ever-changing assignments, with long times away from the family.
Stewart was aboard the USS Oak Hill on its maiden cruise in the Mediterranean Sea when it was redirected to the Persian Gulf because Saddam Hussein was stonewalling U.N. weapons inspectors in the mid-1990s. He served on the USS Comstock when it transported the first Marine division from San Diego's Camp Pendleton to Iraq for Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003.
He's also been involved in humanitarian missions.
"I've done everything from painting schools to working on orphanages in Romania," Stewart said. "When you're building relationships, there's a different tone."
His time on the Comfort, though, will rank highly among his most gratifying duties. The enormity of the Haitian disaster hit him on his first helicopter flight to Port-au-Prince.
"Looking down and seeing whole areas leveled, and springing up not far away on soccer fields were tents to give them shelter," he said. "When we first got to Haiti, we weren't sure what the security situation would be like. We came in prepared for the worst. As time went on, we were able to concentrate more with the citizens of Haiti and with the ministry of health."
He said the Haitians seemed grateful for the U.S. Marines who distributed food and other supplies, and provided a calming influence.
"It took away doubts from people about their own security," Stewart said.
And left him with the memories of a lifetime, like the one involving a pregnant Haitian woman flown out to the ship.
"The mom's pelvis had been crushed and her water broke," Stewart said.
Doctors delivered a premature baby girl named Esther by C-section. They didn't think she'd make it, Stewart said. They took her off the ventilator, and Esther began breathing on her own — yet another against-all-odds survivor of the devastating quake.
And then there's the indelible image of the little boy, part of his leg gone but his thumb raised in gratitude and triumph.
"I get choked up thinking about it," Stewart said.
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2383.