SOTO CANO AIR BASE, Honduras –
"We probably got more training in these two weeks than we will in our whole surgery rotation next year," said Ensign Kelly Haeusler.
On their first day they witnessed a 14-year old boy die, and an 18-month old girl medically evacuated to the capital city's hospital. Finishing their first year of medical school, and 2,000 miles away from home, four students experienced tragedies and challenges in Honduras that would prove a summer program to be more valuable than expected.
"It was shocking," said Haeusler. "It grounds you really fast. We came here to learn, get our hands dirty and have some fun - but lives are always at stake and that's the reality of the situation."
Accompanied by Assistant Professor Deborah Maynard, the group recently visited Joint Task Force-Bravo to participate in a two-week "Summer Operational Experience" program. Mandatory for all first-year students at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Md., the goal of the SOE is to "provide a military experience to junior officers to enhance their understanding of the service branches and life as a military medical officer."
"People go to med school and come out doctors - but a military doctor has another side and role they have to fulfill," said Maynard. "We're trying to help students develop into exceptional medical military officers."
As the first group ever to conduct an SOE with JTF-Bravo's Medical Element, the students joined members of MEDEL's Mobile Surgical Teams to provide care to local patients in Comayagua, Honduras.
"The whole mission of the school is to provide care in austere environments where you don't have all the resources," said Ensign Patrick Engelbert. "I've worked at an ER in California - on a busy day we'd see maybe 120 patients. In Comayagua, they were seeing over 1800."
On top of being immersed in challenging conditions, the opportunity to actually treat patients added unexpected value to the students' experience.
"We've done surgery shadowing where you're standing 30 feet away from the patient -- you can't really see anything," said Army 2nd Lt. Henry Yu. "I never thought we'd actually be physically making decisions, suturing patients and getting our hands dirty - overall we learned tons from this experience."
Throughout the two weeks, the students not only gained real-world medical experience, but also were exposed to what they can expect after their four years of education.
"We're kind of in our own little world focused on studying," said Ensign Kristen Birmingham. "It's good to get out and see more of the actual military side of things."
MEDEL Surgeon Lt. Colonel Scott Rehrig was a key mentor during the program as he fully immersed the students into every aspect of the medical operations. Rotating them through various positions on the team, he emphasized that knowing each job is crucial in being a medical military officer. In his opinion, the program was very successful.
"They did very well and showed great maturity and compassion," Rehrig said. "This is the perfect place to send medical students. They saw the good, the bad, and the ugly - what it means to be a health care provider and everything that comes with it."
Rehrig also expressed gratitude to his counterparts in the Honduran medical community.
"We're so thankful to the Honduran people and have the utmost respect for them," he said. "They have excellent skills and knowledge working in a challenging environment with very limited resources."
Looking back on the two weeks, Maynard is hopeful to continue the program with MEDEL next year and afford more students the experience of coming to JTF-Bravo.
"It was amazing," she said. "I don't know of any other SOE that had the variety and amount of opportunities than this one."
As the curriculum specialist looks forward to next summer, she expressed tremendous gratitude to the leadership of JTF-Bravo and the MEDEL staff.
"We were extremely pleased with MEDEL and the command here," Maynard said. "Dr. Rehrig was exceptional, as was Maj. Jeanette Rodriguez - really, I could list the entire staff. They were all just so phenomenal."
USUHS medical students complete their four-year medical preparation in a compressed period of time and the SOE course may be the only opportunity the future physician has to become involved in military life prior to graduation and residency.