SOTO CANO AIR BASE, Honduras –
Hundreds of people, men, women and children of all ages, flocked to the remote village of Rio Platano to receive something that is very scarce in the region - basic medical care. Some walked five hours on small goat trails while others traveled by canoe for three hours in the narrow canals that wind through the forest as there are no roads leading to Rio Platano. All of them gathered around old, paint-chipped buildings and patiently waited in the relentless heat of the Honduras sun. They stood there waiting for a smile, a kind word, a healing touch...waiting for someone to care.
Joint Task Force-Bravo's Medical Element (MEDEL) partnered with the Honduran Ministry of Health and the Honduran military Aug. 25-28 to provide basic medical care to the Department of Gracias a Dios. During this operation, known as a Medical Readiness Training Exercise (MEDRETE), Joint Task Force-Bravo, along with the 1-228th Aviation Regiment and Joint Security Forces, transported medical supplies, equipment, and personnel to the location selected by the Ministry of Health. Then U.S. medics and Honduran medical professionals provided care, preventative medicine, dental and pharmaceutical supplies to people who, more often than not, have never received professional medical care in their lives.
"The MEDRETE allowed us to provide medical and dental services to a population with limited resources and medical services," said U.S. Army Capt. Tarah Carnes, a registered nurse of MEDEL. "Our services reached not only the population of Rio Platano but also to seven communities that are scattered throughout the area. Several of the patients traveled several hours one way to receive the care that we were able to provide."
"People traveling from Brus Laguna had a one hour raft ride to get to the MEDRETE site," Tonela Wood, mayor of Brus Laguna, said. "It's the only way to get here. One nurse made a one hour walk with her patients from a small village called Nueva Jerusalem."
During this MEDRETE, the doctors, dentists, and medical professionals treated 763 patients over a two-day span and treated a wide variety of illnesses that occur due to their living conditions.
"Diseases and conditions are a reflection of the living conditions," said Carnes. "Most of the population has no electricity or running water and the area is unsanitary. Bathing and laundry is done in the ocean where the animals bathe and the landscape is littered with trash and human and animal feces."
Each MEDRETE presents its own unique set of challenges, not the least of which is setting up a functioning medical clinic in an extremely austere environment. Joint Task Force-Bravo and MEDEL utilizes these opportunities to exercise their expeditionary mission command and medical capabilities while supporting the Ministry of Health's efforts to provide medical care to the underserviced population.
Dr. Wilmer Blucha, Gracias a Dios health director, thanked the JTF-Bravo and Honduran teams for their medical efforts because "we know the central (Honduras) government's support to this area is scarce. The delivery process from Tegucigalpa is inefficient so there is a shortage of medicine in the town's medical station."
Several middle-aged men were suffering from the effects of decompression syndrome from years of diving in the ocean for seafood.
"These individuals presented paralysis, neurologic and musculoskeletal deficits, and pulmonary issues. It was extremely sad because this had affected their livelihood and families," added Carnes.
Throughout the MEDRETE, U.S. and Honduran healthcare professionals conducted classes for the patients to teach them about hygiene, nutrition, and preventative dental practices. They also provide wellness checkups, medication, dental care, and perform minor medical procedures as required. In these distant regions, access to even this basic healthcare is a rarity.
"A woman, who had traveled over two hours by boat to receive medical care, I treated was diagnosed with high blood pressure," stated Dr. Carlos Garay, a Honduran physician. "Having uncontrolled hypertension and not having access to the proper medications make her a high risk for a stroke. If this woman would not have made the trip to Rio Platano, she could have easily had a stroke and cut her life short."
Even after a long, hard day, those who participate in the MEDRETES say they can see the gratitude of the patients despite the language barrier.
"I have been involved in numerous MEDRETE missions before and it always humbles me how loving and appreciative the people are," said Carnes. "It puts into perspective how privileged we are to have all of the medical resources and capabilities that we have in the United States."
The Joint Task Force-Bravo Medical Element has been conducting medical readiness training exercises since Oct. 1993 and have treated nearly 350,000 medical patients, more than 69,000 dental patients and over 14,400 surgical patients throughout Central America.