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Medical team restores sight for Honduras' needy

By Tech. Sgt. William Farrow | Joint Task Force-Bravo public affairs | Jan. 29, 2008

SOTO CANO AIR BASE, Honduras — A team specializing in eye surgery is currently supporting Southern Command engagement strategies and conducting a Medical Readiness Education and Training Exercise at Hospital del Sur, Choluteca, Honduras.

The 18-person Western Regional Medical Command Humanitarian Civic Assistance Eye Surgical Team participating in the MEDRETE has been in place here for three weeks performing a real-world readiness training mission while conducting ophthalmic surgical for the needy.

Managed by U.S. SOUTHCOM since 1989, the MEDRETE program is one of the primary U.S. engagement efforts in the region providing American military health care personnel the opportunity positively impact thousands of people, many of whom may not have had medical care in years, while gaining invaluable experience and developing their skills.

"The team examined more than 600 people from a 500 square mile radius in the southwest region of Honduras, selecting the worst cases from the poorest of the poor for treatment," said Army Dr. (Col.) Darryl Ainbinder, Eye Surgical Team chief.

Doctor Ainbinder said the MEDRETE not only assists the local population by providing medical care, but also assists the nation-building process enhancing relations between the U.S. military and the host nation through positively impacting regional medical infrastructure.

During the three-week-long MEDRETE, the team performed more than 170 eye surgeries, with most of the operations removing cataracts and bringing back sight for many people who hadn't had vision in years.

Doctor Ainbinder said a large percentage of the eye problems treated are results of injury, such as the team's recent treatment of a 6 year-old boy who suffered a significant hemorrhage in the anterior chamber of the eye from a dog bite.

"In the local environment, (injury) is often the end of useful vision, but the patient is doing well with the medical care we're providing currently and avoiding a future life with sight from one eye only," Dr. Ainbinder said.

Doctor Ainbinder explained how many of the patients suffer from the results of systemic illnesses such as Vitamin K deficiency or toxoplasmosis--illnesses that can often be avoided through education and prevention.

"Many of our patients have strabismus (crossed eyes) a birth defect related to systemic prenatal health deficiencies, but identification and treatment empowers the family with the knowledge of what caused the problem in the first place," he said. "Once people are aware of prevention efforts, there is an awareness of the future gained that will last a lifetime."

An ophthalmologist specializing in correcting "crossed eyes," Dr. William Raymond, a retired Army Colonel and staff-member at Madigan Army Medical Center, Ft. Lewis, Wash. has participated in MEDRETEs annually for the last five years.

"It's very satisfying to know how much good we are doing," he said as he accompanied a nine-year-old boy from operating room to recovery. "We work all day long, seven days a week for a month; we do so much good in such a short amount of time...it's very gratifying."

However, this MEDRETE isn't just U.S. military medical personnel treating patients with eye problems. There are also a multitude of Hondurans medical practitioners participating in the exercise.

"We work closely with the local public health professionals, very capable but overwhelmed local ophthalmologist, for follow up care, and we also provide patient evaluations and reports to local pediatricians," Dr. Ainbinder said.

The team is also training the local hospital staff in community education on prevention using ophthalmic presentations focusing on systemic illnesses.

"Hopefully our "Train the Trainer" education program will have a lasting effect on community health initiatives and educate the locals who go out and teach water purification to prevent pediatric diarrhea and proper food handling techniques to prevent Toxoplasmosis," Dr. Ainbinder said.