NEWS | Oct. 2, 2015

JTF-Bravo partners with Panama to bring health care to remote villages

By Maria J. Pinel Joint Task Force-Bravo/Public Affairs

A team from Joint Task Force-Bravo joined the Panamanian Ministry of Health, along with members from the U.S. Embassy in Panama, Sept. 22 - 25, 2015 , for a medical readiness training exercise that provided free health care to those in need in the communities of Quebrada Negra and Coronte, Panama.

Located in the mountains of Ngobe Bugle, a region, or "comarca", formed by indigenous people with very limited resources, and no roads to get there, obtaining access to basic necessities and care is nearly impossible for the people of this region.

"People walk about two hours to get here; some even have to take boats," said Dr. Liliana Santa María Vasquez, regional director for the Ministry of Health of Ngobe Bugle. "The support that the U.S. Southern Command has provided for us is formidable. These are very remote areas, exposed to extreme poverty, where it is very difficult for the ministry of health to reach without helicopter transportation," she said.

Exercises such as these enhance readiness, foster partner nation response and capacity, and also validate JTF-Bravo's medical expeditionary capabilities.

"We've worked very hard, not just here in Panama but throughout Central America, to develop the ability for working in partnership with other countries. To bring social and public services out to these more isolated parts of their countries," said Kevin O'Reilly, Chargé d'Affaires for the U.S. Embassy in Panama. "There are folks that are coming in here from all over this comarca, and it demonstrates the need for these services, and it is being provided by their own government with the assistance that we can provide. We are saving people's lives today - that is a very impressive and humbling thing," said O'Reilly.

One particular incident that happened in Coronte put these capabilities to the test, when Victor Luis Pineda, a 30-day-old child was found to have severe malnourishment, dehydration, and oral candidiasis which prevented him from breast feeding, and had to be transported by helicopter to the Rambala Air Field, along with his mother and a representative from the Panamanian Ministry of Health, in order to get life-saving treatment.

"I asked the Panamanian Ministry of Health officials and the U.S. Embassy to work the request through the Panamanian channels to provide the lift support. They made initial coordination and it was determined that it would take from three to five days before they could take the baby to a hospital," said Maj. Renato Angeles, Tactical Officer in Charge, "but the baby didn't have five days - he maybe had only 24 hours."     

Thanks to the assistance provided, baby Victor is now recovering and will later be transferred to the Kankintu district where the Panamanian Ministry of Health has a nutrition center, and he should receive continuous treatment for his malnourishment until he reaches a full recovery.

While in Quebrada Negra, a local girl was brought in with a second degree burn on the lower part of her left leg. Though the pain must have been excruciating, she maintained a calm and positive attitude while the burn was being examined. Because of the skin damage on her leg was so severe, medical providers from JTF-Bravo reached out to the Colorado Pediatric Burn Center for a joint evaluation on how to better provide treatment for her, and were able to give their local care provider the proper education that would help with the future healing of her wound, and also prevent potential complications and infections.

In spite of complicated weather conditions in a rainforest environment, the entire team continued to do everything they could and more to ensure better treatment for the patients during and after the MEDRETE.

Joint Task Force-Bravo's effort did not stop there. The Panamanian Ministry of Health also requested support in the transportation of supplies in order to help build latrines and water dispensing sites that would aid the sanitary conditions for the Ngobe Bugle people, along with 1050 pounds of nutritional cereal. 

An exercise such as this, takes careful planning and team-work in order to make sure that the right needs are met.

"Working as a team has been very well executed. We had a lot of previous meetings and after each work day ends, we regroup and discuss how we can improve," said Dr. Vasquez.  "It had been 10 years since a health tour visited this region, and thanks to JTF-Bravo we have done it."

Col. Robert Harman, Commander of Joint Task Force-Bravo, visited the site to witness firsthand how lives were being touched.

"I am lost for words. If you could see what I see, with the people being proactive and operating amongst themselves; our people taking care of people in an isolated spot that probably has not been touched by others in a long time - this is really significant. It's all about partnership. In the end it's all about building relationships... this is what we're here for," he said.

In total, 2,300 patients received care thanks to the effort and support of partner nations coming together in teamwork.