SOTO CANO AIR BASE, Honduras, –
The impromptu hospital room is lit only by the light streaming through the cement and brick lined windows. Dust from the activity outside reflects off the beams, causing coughs and sneezes from patients and providers alike. As the patients fill the room, Dr. Miguel Coello, Joint Task Force - Bravo Medical Element liaison officer, waits patiently to offer much needed medical care to the families.
As the first patient comes up, Coello receives her with a smile and a handshake, and then proceeds to engage in conversation. He gently checks the pulse of the young woman, who is expecting her first child.
Coello, a native of Honduras, knew his calling as a doctor at a young age. He did not anticipate, however, that his ability to impact his people would ultimately come as an employee of the U.S. military.
Born and raised in downtown Tegucigalpa, Honduras, Coello did not have many of the opportunities children usually have to play and make friends growing up. One reason was the apartment his family lived in, which had a lack of playmates.
"It was very city-like," said Coello. "I did not have the opportunity to play with many children because there were not many children who lived inside the city walls. I remember wanting to be like the rest of the kids at school, playing soccer or riding bikes. It was very safe but restricting."
The other reason was his duties at home.
Growing up, Coello's father was often away on business trips, leaving Coello and his brother to share the responsibilities of the family. Their mother would divide the chores, cleaning and going to the market evenly to teach them the importance of contribution and care.
The strong faith of his mother, a Columbian native, often provided guidance to the children as well. They would attend church regularly, surrounding themselves with friends and family. Attending church provided much guidance for Coello and the decisions he made which directed his life.
"My mother always wanted one of us to become a minister in the church," said Coello. "For me, growing up in church, I looked at the pastors as someone spiritual, looking out for the well-being of others. I liked that, but knew I could never portray myself as that, not because I didn't like it, but because I felt it would be very hard for me to reach that level of spirituality."
Coello's mother would often tell him stories about growing up in Columbia. One story she told him set him on the path to where he is today.
"My mother would tell me about pastors in Columbia that were also doctors," said Coello. "They had a dual role and would look for the well-being of a soul, but through healing a body with medicine. One doctor came from Brazil to our church and talked about the humanitarian efforts he and others performed throughout the jungles bordering Columbia and Brazil. When I saw this, I said to myself 'You know? I can do that. Being a pastor is too high to achieve, but I can be a doctor.' I didn't want to be a doctor to make money. I wanted to be a doctor to help."
The decision to study medicine was easy for Coello. The struggle to complete college and medical school was hard, however. For four years he paced himself, completed a few courses at a time. Once he was finished with college, he pushed forward with another four years of medical school.
"I remember my friends who chose to study other careers," said Coello. "They were gone much sooner than myself. Being a doctor was an eight-year commitment."
Attending medical school was a worthwhile effort for Coello. Although he had to find alternate sources of funding to obtain necessities such as books, he knew the payoff would be rewarding.
"When I started medicine, I found myself many times without having enough money in my pocket to get the books I needed," said Coello. "At that time there was no internet, only books. It was expensive. I made friends with students who were years ahead of me and bought or borrowed books from them. I would also spend hours in the library in order to use the amenities there."
During his last year of medical school, Coello helped with medical missions with a team from the University of Cincinnati's Family Medicine Department. The team started a mission in rural Honduras. They built a clinic, where he volunteered for two weeks as the doctor, giving the people care they could not otherwise receive.
After graduating from medical school, Coello was offered an opportunity to work with a Seven Day Adventist Hospital in Tegucigalpa. While working at the hospital, the medical mission team contacted him once again asking for his help with a mission project called "Shoulder to Shoulder" in the town of Intibuca, Honduras.
"I told them I already did my social service and paid back my country," said Coello. "They were very persistent on that day. The lead doctor, Jeffrey Heck, challenged me. He pointed out that I had many doctors working around and with me. He told me that if I worked in a very rural part of the country that the U.S. would be helping me but it would be only me and asked me if I was up for the challenge."
Coello agreed to see what the mission team had to offer and left. After a 40-mile drive that took 12 hours to complete, traversing roads that looked like dried riverbeds, he arrived at a town on the border of El Salvador. With no electricity, running water or anything to do, Coello decided then that he did not want to be part of the mission.
Before Coello had the opportunity to leave the small town, two men arrived at the town carrying a pregnant woman in a hammock. The men had been walking for four hours to take the woman, who was in labor, to a hospital.
The volunteers brought the woman to Coello who determined that the woman needed a cesarean section. Without the supplies to perform the surgery, he determined that the best course of action would be to take the woman to the hospital in El Salvador, which was closer than taking her to a hospital in Honduras.
"At that moment, one of the volunteers turned around and said to me, 'What would have happened if you were in your hospital at this exact moment instead of here?' Looking at the lady in the hammock made me make the decision at that moment to stay," said Coello. "I ended up staying there for 12 years. I was the very first doctor in that program."
While Coello's commitment with the "Shoulder to Shoulder" program was coming to a close, Joint Task Force - Bravo's Medical Element was transitioning from active-duty Army to the Air Force and looking to hire new Honduran doctors. The MEDEL commander reached out to the medical liaison officers who were already under contract with JTF - Bravo and asked them to assist with the medical readiness training exercises and the sick hallsick call. Knowing that more manpower was needed, one medical liaison officer, often referred to simply as "LNOs",LNO contacted Coello and offered him the opportunity to work with the U.S. military.
Coello's experience working in Intibuca taught him to speak English as well work in rural areas. The experience contributed to his selection as the newest LNO contractor to MEDEL, helping with MEDRETE's and sick hallsick call.
After the Air Force started bringing more providers to MEDEL, Coello was able to focus more on MEDRETEs. He would fly all over the country to remote locations to assist people in need of medical care.
"When we started doing the MEDRETEs, we would fly to the jungles in the middle of Honduras," said Coello. "I recalled the doctor I met when I was a child who was also a pastor, working in Brazil and South America. In those first MEDRETEs, I realized that I can do this. I cannot be a doctor in a hospital. I had to be out. I had to be helping."
Coello recalls one of his favorite cases while working during a JTF - Bravo MEDRETE:
"There was a patient that came to an eye surgical team. The gentleman, 77 years old, had cataracts in his eyes. He was blind and could not see. He went into the operating room, and underwent an operation first on one eye and then four days later on the other eye. When we visited him in the recovery clinic, he was able to see, and stretched his hand out to me. He said 'I know I am an old man and don't have many years left to live, but you have given me a gift. You have given me back my ability to see again.' I always remember his happy face because he gained something he lost. That was thanks to a combined effort from JTF - Bravo."
Attending 12-15 MEDRETEs each year, Coello attributes his success to his counterparts at MEDEL and JTF - Bravo. Working with the Army and Air Force has also helped him realize that there are more opportunities for service members than what people typically realize. MEDEL has helped him realize that military members are here to heal and provide care for people, regardless of who they are.
"The team of military and civilian doctors at JTF - Bravo is committed to what we are doing here," said Coello. "Even if we don't have the opportunity to provide care to all the people of Honduras, we can provide care when we can. That gives the people comfort and I like that. Working for the U.S. military has given me the opportunity not to work for a small pocket of Honduras, but for the entire country."
Coello has been serving at JTF-Bravo since 2005 and is one of 5 LNO doctors on staff there. In the last 25 years, the Task Force has teamed with the Honduran Ministry of Health to provide medical and dental care to more than 500,000 people in Central America.