NEWS | Feb. 2, 2009

Medical team repairs vision for 245 Hondurans

By Tech Sgt. Rebecca Danét Joint Task Force-Bravo Public Affairs

Seven-month-old Dilcia Milagro Espinal has always had beautiful big, brown eyes. Now, thanks to a team of U.S. Army ophthalmologists here, she also has the ability to see with them, unhindered by misalignment or double vision.

Dilcia was one of 245 patients to receive free surgical eye care during a Medical Readiness Training Exercise here Jan. 8 - 30. A team of 17 medical experts led by Dr. (Maj.) John Thordsen Ochoa of Madigan Army Medical Center near Tacoma, Wash., brought 6,300 pounds of donated supplies to Hospital del Sur to improve a variety of eye conditions for the people here. 

As a newborn, Dilcia developed strabismus, or cross-eyes, a condition that occurs in about four percent of children in the U.S. and is easily fixed with early intervention, said Dr. (Maj.) Frank Valentín, a pediatric ophthalmologist from Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas. Surgery usually isn't required, he said. When access to corrective care is not available, the condition progresses until surgery is the only available option and even then, the outcome is not always perfect.

"Dilcia is at the perfect age because that's when you can really do something for them," Dr. Valentín said. "At this age their outcome is great -- you can get them all the way to 20/20. Early intervention really blesses these kids."

Coming back to Choluteca for the eighth year in a row, the team from Madigan was determined to conduct more surgeries during the three-week trip than it ever had before. The doctors succeeded by more than 70 operations but they didn't do it alone.

"The real success story behind these MEDRETEs is all of the cooperation between so many different agencies," said Dr. (Col.) Otto Boneta, Joint Task Force-Bravo Medical Element commander. From the embassy, to the doctors, the Honduran government officials, the hospital itself and even the patients, everyone plays a part in making these missions work, he said.

Beginning with the medical team, the group is made up mostly of doctors from Madigan but also included doctors from Brooke; Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Washington, D.C.; Womack Army Medical Center in Fayetteville, N.C.; and Dr. Keith Dahlhauser, a cataract surgeon in private practice in Tacoma, Wash.

"Going on these humanitarian missions was always a highlight of my military career," Dr. Dahlhauser said. "I didn't want to give that up when I got out, so volunteering to come out here during my vacation time was a way for me to keep doing it."

Before the exercise even begins, staff from Joint Task Force-Bravo travel to the MEDRETE location to screen potential patients. Dr. Carlos Duron, JTF-B MEDEL liaison officer, spent several days in Choluteca working with the hospital staff and seeing patients. After the team is gone, Dr. Duron will return to Choluteca to provide follow-up care.

Hospital del Sur supported the MEDRETE by waiving the fee it normally charges for services. It provided the operating rooms, recovery rooms and a place for the team to store supplies. The hospital even set up sleeping accommodations for families who traveled with patients from far away.

Honduran Boy and Girl Scouts were also on hand to help out. They acted as interpreters, moved patients from surgery to recovery and aided families as they waited for their loved ones.

"These scouts have come back year after year to help out," Dr. Duron said. "They do so much to make sure everything runs smoothly and now two of them are even in medical school themselves. It's just a great experience to have them with us."

Even the intervention of perfect strangers worked to ensure those most in need got the care that was given completely free.

"While visiting Honduras this past summer, I encountered two boys ... twins suffering from what appears to be a form of cross-eye," said Ms. Jane Winer of Bethesda, Md., in a letter to 12th Air Force Public Affairs Jan. 3.

The letter traveled quickly through 12th AF and on to JTF-B. Dr. Duron saw the boys during his pre-screening and Dr. Valentín performed surgery on them Jan. 21.

Today, 7-year-old twins Melvin and Selvin Flores Reconco have straight eyes. Over the next two to three weeks, the redness, which is a normal condition immediately after surgery, will slowly vanish. Dr. Duron is set to follow-up with the boys later this month.

"I'm so impressed with this team," Dr. Boneta said. "This is the most highly skilled team of surgeons I've seen here and they're doing wonderful things for these people. The level of care they put into what they're doing here is just unheard of anywhere else."

"The people here are so beautiful," Dr. Valentín said. "There's just no money that can replace the feeling you get when they hug you and kiss you. The parents, especially, are just so happy."