Pictured Above: Dr. Usha Menon, Paul Anderson, and Steve Finnesy
TAMPA–Lonely. Wearisome. Dangerous.
Thousands of seafarers–representing hundreds of countries–come through Port Tampa Bay each year. Although the role that the seafarers fulfill is crucial to a global economy, their health care and well-being are often overlooked.
“Seafaring is one of the most dangerous professions in the world,” said Steve Finnesy, chaplain for Tampa Port Ministries, which has helped meet the physical, social and spiritual needs of seafarers for decades.
“While most seafarers are young and healthy, fatigue and extreme work conditions make this one of the most dangerous professions.”
Once docked, workers are often unable to go ashore, sometimes for months, due to strict security and immigration concerns. This factor, combined with hurdles like low wages and limited access to employer-provided health care, can make visiting with a health care professional impossible, even if the need is urgent.
Lack of access to health care for seafarers became even more evident during the pandemic, as seafarers were unable to disembark at ports around the world due to not being vaccinated against COVID-19.
At that time a collaboration between Tampa Port Ministries, Port Tampa Bay and the College of Nursing at University of South Florida provided seafarers with free COVID-19 vaccinations.
“For the guys that work on the ships, they’re traveling around the world and going to various ports in and felt completely unprotected. So, for us, it’s as much a mental health issue for them as it is a physical health issue,” said Finnesy at the time.
After one vaccination clinic, a ship’s captain told Finnesy that the vaccinations would relieve seafarers’ “daily anxiety” about traveling throughout the world unprotected.
What began as simply providing free COVID-19 vaccinations to more than 1,500 seafarers—representing dozens of nations—has now evolved into a strategic and multifaceted health care partnership.
In June 2021, Tampa Port Ministries partnered with USF’s College of Nursing and Port Tampa Bay to create the first-of-its-kind clinical outreach to provide essential and direct care for the thousands of seafarers whose global maritime routes bring them to Port Tampa Bay each year.
“We had a shared desire and collective ambition to bring healthcare to those who don’t have access to it,” said Usha Menon, dean for USF’s College of Nursing. “Students have an opportunity to take part in global health care from their own backyard.”
In an effort to meet the ever-increasing need and expand the partnership, a portion of the Tampa Port Ministries building has been converted into a “full-fledged clinic, making the Port of Tampa the first port in the world to have on-site clinical care,” said Menon.
The health clinic will be fully staffed with USF faculty and students and will provide a full slate of health care services, including physicals, vaccinations and urgent care. The college also plans to develop a global telehealth component that will allow practitioners to provide follow-up care to patients after they have returned to a cargo ship and are out at sea.
“Port Tampa Bay is honored to partner with the USF College of Nursing to provide this much-needed service to the seafarers who travel through our port,” said Paul Anderson, president and CEO of the Tampa Bay Port Authority. “These hardworking men and women often go more than a month before they can leave their ship and attend to their needs. The ability to receive high-quality medical care at our port will be potentially lifesaving.”
This partnership has an even greater impact far beyond meeting just the seafarer’s physical needs as Tampa Port Ministries seeks to meet the spiritual needs of those who use the facilities of Port Tampa Bay.
The ministry center offers worship service opportunities, transportation to local churches, Bibles and tracts in various languages, Bible studies, and availability to chaplains.
The significance of caring for seafarers not only has ripple effects around the world but also has a major impact within the Sunshine State. Local Florida Baptist churches started this ministry in the late 1970s, and they continue to partner alongside, pray and provide essential resources for Tampa Port Ministries.
‘This ministry is international missions without leaving home.’
“This ministry is international missions without leaving home,” said Marc Johnston, community ministries catalyst for the Florida Baptist Convention. “Seafarers, representing hundreds of countries, come through the Port Tampa Bay every day.”
Remaining tethered to their mission of “coming alongside,” the churches in Tampa Bay Baptist Association and various churches in the Tampa Bay region continue to come right beside this ministry to make a gospel impact.
“Lives are being impacted for the kingdom,” said Johnston. “As a Convention, we are right beside Florida Baptist churches as they fulfill the Great Commission.”