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Military medical teams providing care in Honduras

By Tech. Sgt. William Farrow | Joint Task Force-Bravo public affairs | Feb. 28, 2008

SOTO CANO AIR BASE, Honduras-- — A U.S. military medical team is deployed to Honduras for a two-week U.S. Southern Command-sponsored Medical Readiness Training Exercises Feb. 18-29.

The 12-person joint ophthalmological eye surgery team is in its second week of providing ophthalmology services and has already conducted more than 70 surgeries.

Although the team is provided free medical assessment and care for all Hondurans, a large portion of patients receiving care during the MEDRETE were children and the elderly, evident in the recovery area of the Tela Area Hospital, site of the MEDRETE.

"We've treated more than 55 people and more than half of those were under the age of 10 or over the age of 60," said Maj. Paul Miller, Joint Task Force-Bravo liaison officer.

"It's very gratifying for the team to be able to help the children and the elderly because in many cases, the young are getting clear vision for the first time in their lives and the elderly have vision for the first time in years," he said.

Major Miller said cataract removal in the elderly and the correction of strabismus (crossed eyes) in the young were the most prevalent corrective procedures.

The act of picking up and moving operations to a different location with a different set of personnel that is key for team's success.

"Small footprint readiness training is what sharpens the capabilities of the team," said Dr. (Col.) Martha Schatz, surgical ophthalmologist, Wilford Hall Medical Center, Lackland Air Force Base, Texas.

The experience of performing improvisational medical care is what Air Force Dr. (Capt.) J.T. Swick, an anesthesiologist from Wilford Hall, said his team gains most from the MEDRETE.

"Their equipment is different and we've had to make do with what we brought with us and what they have available for us, but we've still had to think out of the box and even make repairs to certain equipment," he said. "We've been performing safe, effective surgery without the conveniences of home (Wilford Hall)."

He said the greatest challenge isn't operating in a different environment using unfamiliar equipment or the long hours (12-16 hour days), but it's that the team's prognosis has to be perfect so that all surgical procedures are completed without complications.

"We're it," Dr. Swick said. "If there are complications, we don't have the luxury of having a back-up specialist to call upon, so we have to be extra thorough in our evaluation process."

The deployments are just four of the 65 MEDRETEs SOUTHCOM is sponsoring in 17 Central American, South American and Caribbean nations this fiscal year.

In addition to helping those in need, the MEDRETEs offer the U.S. medical troops a one-of-a-kind opportunity to go through an entire deployment process and treat patients in the field - important training that is a departure from the typically simulated medical training exercises conducted back home.

Managed by SOUTHCOM since 1989, the MEDRETE program is one of the premier U.S. engagement efforts in the region, giving American military health care personnel the opportunity to have a positive impact on thousands of people who may not have had any medical care in years.

It is also one of the military's more unique and successful training programs, providing invaluable real-world preparation for troops while reaching out to and working alongside partner nations.

The Tela MEDRETE is one of four teams operating currently in the Caribbean and Central America area.