January 6, 2014

Hope in Brazil: High expectations await medical team

SS Hope greeted by anxious and excited well-wishers as it comes into dock at Maceio, Brazil, January 1973. Project Hope photo.

Lori Shearn, guest writer

Editor’s note: Kaiser Permanente physician and educator Martin Shearn and his wife Lori traveled to Brazil in 1973 where Dr. Shearn served as chief of staff for the SS Hope hospital ship docked in Maceio, a poor coastal community in Northeast Brazil.

As the day of the ship’s arrival got closer, the pace quickened. Martin was in daily radio contact with the SS Hope as it made its way to Maceio from Baltimore.

Dr. Shearn heard about the devastating storm that made the entire staff seasick. One of the trucks planned for use at Maceio smashed into a guardrail and was battered so badly that it was never fixed.

A young woman on board suffered a traumatic retinal detachment during the storm, an unusual injury for a woman in her twenties. She needed an emergency operation to save her vision.

The ophthalmologist on board made the diagnosis but he was too inexperienced and frightened to perform the delicate procedure on a rocking ship. The Washington Hope office sent a retinal surgery specialist who met the ship off the Brazilian coast near Natal.

A terribly seasick surgeon boarded SS Hope and confirmed the diagnosis. He made plans to perform the seven-hour operation when the ship docked at Maceio.

After the successful surgery, we asked the patient what we should tell her parents back home. She said: “Send Bagels”.

The drama was followed daily in the local newspapers, surely the biggest story they’d covered in a long time.

Project Hope's founder waits with Shearns for ship

Sandra Weisner, at center, head of nursing for Project Hope, helped Lori to a bed when she fell ill while boarding the ship. Martin Shearn, MD, is pictured at the far right. Project Hope photo
Sandra Weisner, center, head of nursing for Project Hope, helped Lori to a bed when she fell ill while boarding the ship. Martin Shearn, MD, is pictured at the far right. Project Hope photo

The founder of Project Hope is Dr. William Walsh. It was his idea to obtain rental of the ship from the U.S. government after World War II for a dollar a year, and he arranged for the Merchant Marine to operate and maintain the vessel.

Dr. Walsh was responsible for raising $12 million a year in donations to fund projects all over the world, and it was he who made the contacts with the governments and medical societies wherever the ship was dispatched.

The SS Hope was his creation, and whenever the ship pulled into a foreign port, Dr. “Bill” Walsh was the first one to walk down the gangway as “she” was greeted on arrival. Maceo was no different.

Martin and I were to meet Dr. Walsh’s plane in Recife. We were summoned there even though it was 150 miles away and would take us four hours to get there. The temperature was regularly hitting 100 degrees. Fortunately the university chancellor provided an air-conditioned limo and driver for the trip.

On the day the ship was expected, dawn broke as usual at 5 o’clock. We went for our morning swim, half believing that we would be able to see her on the horizon.

Excitement mounted, and then, about 10 a.m. a small shape appeared, reflected in the golden sunlight. Even binoculars didn’t yet display a clear image. The Walshes were with us, and we all took turns with periodic sprints to the beach to observe any progress.

“There she is!” suddenly came the joyful shout from Bill. He was like a little kid with a new bicycle. “Do you see her?” he kept asking. “Do you see her?” “Look toward that palm tree on the left. You’ll see her!”

And then I did. And it was exciting. She was only a tiny dot at the moment, but she was white and on the side in huge letters it said “SS HOPE”.

She had stopped at anchor out there and would now wait for our arrival on board so that she could steam into port at the right time for the welcoming ceremony.

Seasickness didn't mar entrance

Martin and I and Dr. and Mrs. Walsh and a few local dignitaries were to accompany the port captain in the pilot boat to meet the “white lady”. I am one of those people who tend to get motion sick at the thought of turbulence and the only person I’ve ever heard of who gets seasick on a surfboard.

So I was horrified when I first saw the tiny red boat that took us to the SS Hope.

I had been preparing my system carefully, priming it copiously with lots of water and lots of pills. “Sit right in front there,” they said, “and don't take your eyes off the horizon, look straight ahead.”

I survived beautifully, not a queasy squeak. Ready to board the big ship, we pulled up alongside where a ladder had been lowered for us.

It was here that things began to look a bit fuzzy to me. The ship was essentially still and hardly rolled at all. But evidently my body felt movement. As the welcoming ceremonies proceeded in a private stateroom, I was suddenly and quite firmly steered to another room where I could be put into a horizontal position.

Somehow I had managed to go into shock. Fortunately one of the nurses recognized the signs in time so that I was spared the ignominy of collapsing during my big entrance.

Hopeful patients turn out for hullabaloo

As the ship docked at the pier, we were greeted by a large crowd, banners waving and band music blasting. Our group led the Hopies (Project Hope workers), with the medical staff in their dress whites lined up along the ship’s railing.

There were official greetings by the state governor, the rector of the university, the mayor of the city and journalists and photographers from miles around.

The university faculty physicians were especially excited to see us because they knew that their medical knowledge would be updated without a lengthy, costly trip to Rio.

The many sick of the area were convinced that finally they or their children would be cured, their fathers would walk again, and that there would be no more disease.

The glamour and romance of the hospital ship had fired the imagination of the world, and now SS Hope was in Maceio and we were going to play a major part.