NEWS | March 18, 2008

Joint Task Force-Bravo team provides medical care in Honduran village

By Tech. Sgt. William Farrow Joint Task Force-Bravo public affairs

A Joint Task Force-Bravo team of military and civilian personnel set up shop March 10 in a small, rural village to provide medical and dental care to more than two-thirds of the community's population.

The JTF-Bravo medical element (MEDEL) Solders, Airmen and civilians were part of a day-long general practice Medical Readiness Training Exercise at Morolica, Honduras.

Dental operations were staged at the town's small clinic where more than 75 locals received care from an Air Force dentist, a MEDEL liaison officer dentist, a Honduran Army dentist, and a civilian Honduran dentist from the Honduras Ministry of Health participating in the MEDRETE.

Air Force Dr. (Lt. Col.) Ray Williams, MEDEL dentist, said the majority of care provided was the extraction of decayed teeth, often the result of neglect combined with poor diets.

"It makes for a bad situation," Colonel Williams said. "About all we can do at this point is remove the tooth which alleviates a lot of the pain and suffering the people are experiencing."

Colonel Williams said if left unattended, tooth decay can have catastrophic effects.

"Not only is there deterioration of teeth, but there is also difficulty chewing food, which can result in under-nutrition and, in turn, impaired physical development," he said. 

Across the street, hundreds of villagers gathered outside the elementary school compound waiting for medical treatment. For the initial stage of the MEDRETE, people received education briefs concerning the necessity of proper hygiene practices.

A common understanding of how good hygiene practices relate to their overall health is vital to the well being of small communities such as this, said Dr. Carlos Durón, MEDEL Liaison Medical Officer.

"Preventive medicine measures and actions ensure we get more bang for the buck," Dr. Durón said. "Re-emphasizing hand washing prior to eating meals, hand washing after using latrines, proper management of garbage and waste disposal to prevent vector and rodent borne diseases. These are long lasting measures that break the cycle of disease-malnutrition-disease-death."

After the briefing, participants received "care packages" consisting of multi-vitamins, anti-parasitic medications, soap and new toothbrushes.

According to the Honduran Ministry of Health, malnutrition is one of the three leading causes of death for children less than five years of age.

"One third of Honduran children are either acutely or chronically malnourished and 40 percent are anemic," Dr. Durón said. "Providing vitamins in remote areas such as Morolica and giving enough of them for a significant period of time (three month's worth) is a long lasting measure, we offer essential micro-nutrients to the population that suffers from basic deficiencies such as iron deficiency. This indeed improves children's and adult's performance at school and labor, therefore being more productive to their families and community," he said.

From the initial MEDRETE encounter, the patients settled in under shade trees awaiting triage for medical problems ranging from common skin rashes to arthritis.

As the patients filed through the four classrooms set up for triage, the medical practitioners began the task of assessing the patient's symptoms and needs which proved quite challenging as they were relying on Spanish-speaking JTF-Bravo members for translation.

However, some of the interpreters were faced with a challenge as well since they were new to converting medical terminology to Spanish.

"I learned a lot today for sure," said Air Force Staff Sgt. Abe Alcivar, MEDEL's medical equipment technician. "Under normal circumstances, I use Spanish to communicate on a social plain. But medical terminology--that's something different."

As a father of three young boys, Sergeant Alcivar said he now knows what his youngest son (who is just learning to speak) must feel like when he has trouble communicating what he really wants to say.

"It was especially challenging trying to translate drug names and physiological terms from English to Spanish and at times I looked at the provider next to me with a blank look on my face," he said.

The experience was a new one too for Air Force Maj. Regina Paden, MEDRETE project officer.

According to Major Paden, putting together the Morolica MEDRETE mission was the most rewarding experience of her career.

"In the past 18 years, I've delivered over 800 babies and saved lives along the way, but our small team touched over 600 lives in the span of six hours; how do you top that?" she said.

As Officer in Charge, Major Paden said her biggest challenge was stepping out of her nurse role and looking at the "big picture" from an operations perspective.

"There were so many facets to the mission: transportation, communication, medical, security, coordination with the Honduran Ministries of Health and the local community. It takes all these pieces to make a successful mission and Morolica was no exception," she said.

"At the end of the day we were exhausted, but I was so proud of the team and what we accomplished," she said. "We made a difference and the richest rewards have no monetary value."