• Mike Nilmeier and the USNS Mercy

    Malaria is among his special interests

    by Jon Guthrie

    Something seems extraordinary about the United States Navy Ship (USNS) Mercy … something beyond her bulk (69,360 tons displacement), her length (894 feet), her beam (105 feet, 7 inches), her propulsion (two boilers driving a pair of GE turbines and one shaft with 24,000 horse power), or her speed (17.5 knots). Her history also seems a bit odd-Mercy was built as an oil tanker and christened SS Worth in 1976-but her history is not really extraordinary either. Nor is it peculiar that she was never destined to fulfill her original purpose. That’s because in July 1984, she was renamed Mercy and converted to a hospital ship. Accepting this new challenge, the USNS Mercy was launched in July, 1985, and commissioned in November, 1986.

    Consider, however, that under a full head of steam 61 civilian and 1,214 military compose her contingency and not one among them posses any ordnance. Mercy is precluded weaponry by provisions of the Geneva Convention and the rules of the Pacific Partnership. Mercy must do her fighting with knives and needles, with irradiation and scalpels and microscopes and bundled medications.

    Consider that the Mercy’s stated mission is to provide “rapid, flexible, and mobile acute medical and surgical services to support task forces deployed ashore and battle forces afloat.” Also “[she] provides mobile surgical hospital service for use by appropriate US Government agencies in disaster or humanitarian relief.” Operating as part of the humanitarian operation previously mentioned, “Pacific Partnership”, the USNS Mercy eschews weaponry.

    On 27 February 1987, Mercy began training to fulfill her purpose as a mercy ship (sometimes called hospital ships) while on a humanitarian cruise to the Philippines and the South Pacific. More than 62,000 outpatients and almost 1,000 inpatients were treated at seven Philippine and South Pacific ports. Some of these people had spent a lifetime without previously seeing a doctor.

    Mercy continues her cruises today. While at sea on her missions of compassion, Mercy is equipped to offer radiological services, physical therapy, burn care, dental services, and optometry. She’s equipped to fill 1,000 patient/beds and, while it’s a service Mercy attempts to avoid, she has a morgue.

    Before each cruise of compassion, the navy accepts applications from young men and women who have some sort of medical training or background and wish to serve as volunteers. More than 400 individuals turned in applications for one summer stint in 2008. The Navy accepted 60 applicants. One of the accepted few was a student at San Diego State University with an exceptional skill: phlebotomy (the letting of blood for transfusion, diagnosis, or experiment.)

    His name and residence? Mike Nilmeier of Pacific Grove.

    Mike Nilmeier of Pacific Grove said of his artistic bent: “what I paint is pretty weird stuff but that’s okay, the process is more important than the product.”

    Twenty-two years earlier, Dr. Susan Nilmeier, a chiropractor now residing in Pacific Grove, was in labor in the comfort of a birthing center where she was attended by a midwife who specialized in natural births, without medications. Dr. Nilmeier now says: “I named my baby Michael. There was something special about the look in Mike’s eyes, the way his hands were so refined. I knew he would become a healer of some sort. Like most new moms, I read aloud to him, but what I read was kind of unusual … books about medicines, cures, anatomy, physiology…

    “To develop the medical mien even more, a skeleton hung from the ceiling in the dining room and cross sections of a brain were laid out as a display on the fireplace mantle.”

    After her son turned five, Dr. Nilmeier moved to the Pacific Grove where she joined Dr. Edward Jarvis’s practice. Later, Mike entered Robert Louis Stevenson where he expanded his interest to include art. “I really like art,” Mike says. “However, what I paint is pretty weird stuff, but that’s okay; the process is more important than the product.”

    After RLS, Mike gave his mom a hug, headed south, and checked in at San Diego State University, a college his mother had attended. Mike was chatting with a chum, Kjeld Aamodt, one day when Aamodt (a Norwegian) mentioned that he had recently enjoyed the pleasure of being a volunteer on the USNS Mercy. Aamodt encouraged Mike to apply.

    Mike said the more they talked, the more intriguing the idea sounded; he completed and filed the application. Word came back; he was accepted as a volunteer for a 15-week mercy cruise.

    “I flew to the Philippines, and met the ship at Manila,” Mike says. “This was proving to be an extraordinary experience. My bunk was in a giant dormitory-style room for enlisted personnel. There wasn’t much privacy, but I made a lot of new friends. We ate meals in a dining hall, and most of the food turned out to be really appetizing. Stepping out on deck at night was unbelievable. There is little light-pollution at sea, and the sky hosted a circus of stars.”

    “It was fascinating. People in need of medical attention would wait in small groups on shore. Many would get their basic care right there. Others would be transported to the Mercy by shuttle craft. We had a helicopter on board which would fly medical teams to sites more inland. We saw a lot of illnesses that are pretty well eradicated back in the States. I found that I’m really interested in malaria, a disease spread by mosquitoes.

    What are Mike’s short-turn plans? To graduate from San Diego State University, complete graduate studies, and become a primary-care physician. Mike would enjoy seeing his office set up in Pacific Grove one day, possibly in a medical partnership arrangement with his mom, but he would also enjoy traveling now and then with volunteer groups like those aboard the USNS Mercy. Mike also hopes to find productive ways to use his incredible art skills in medicine.

    “Most of all,” Mike says, “I hope I can navigate through life with grace and humor while helping a lot of people along the way.”

    Authors note: To learn more about the USNS Mercy, sister ships, and their projects: www.globalsecurity.org.

    posted to Cedar Street Times on January 9, 2009

    Topics: Features


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