Smiles make the long days worth it

  • Published
  • By Maj. Jessica Martin, 926th Group and Capt. Elizabeth Magnusson, 944th Fighter Wing
Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic -- After six months of preparation, two days of travel; and a whirlwind two weeks of non-stop medical, dental, and optical care, Reserve and Guard members from 10 different units returned to home station a little tired but filled with pride and satisfaction knowing they provided care to more than 10,000 patients in 15 days.

Members of the 944th Medical Squadron, Luke Air Force Base, Ariz., in partnership with the 926th Aerospace Medicine Squadron, Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., the 934th Aeromedical Staging Squadron, Minneapolis St. Paul Air Reserve Station, Minn., 927th Aeromedical Staging Squadron, MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., 476th Aerospace Medicine Flight, Moody Air Force Base, Ga., the 163rd Medical Group, March Air Reserve Base, Calf., 419th Medical Squadron, Hill Air Force Base, Utah, 910th Medical Squadron, Youngstown Air Reserve Station, Ohio, 514th Aeromedical Staging Squadron, Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J., and Head Quarters Air Force Reserve Command, participated in this year's Medical Humanitarian Tour to the Dominican Republic.

"There was a certain synergy between all of the members that made this operation a success," commented Lt. Col. Alfred Rossum, 944th Medical Squadron doctor and commander of the Medical Humanitarian Tour."The integration of all of the units and squadrons was seamless."

The call for help came from U.S. Southern Command to Air Force Reserve Command, as part of a program set up to identify and help regions in need. AFRC fulfills two to three of these types of missions a year, fostering goodwill and ensuring the proficiency and skill set of its members.

"When you have to deploy more than 40 people in many different AFSCs, you never know how it will turn out," continued Senior Master Sgt. Anthony Simmons, First Sgt. 944th Medical Squadron. "I was very pleased with the combined effort of all of the Airmen. They operated seamlessly as if they had worked together for years. It was truly a combined effort of professionals that met the challenge head on."

The 47 person U.S. team received the opportunity to conduct a joint mission with the Dominican Republic's Air Force, Forces Air Dominica. The medics worked up to 15 hours a day alongside their host service who provided security, transportation, overnight supply security, translators, and additional medical providers to help with the overwhelming patient load.

"The Dominican Republic military personnel were so enthusiastic about having us that they went out of their way to make us feel comfortable," commented Simmons. "They opened our visit with a military ceremony and ended the two week mission with a very nice closing ceremony complete with a military band and a friendly game of softball."

The group was assigned to address the needs of patients at four separate schools throughout Puerto Plata, as each school location had to be transformed into a temporary clinic. At each location the team set up a medical, dental, optometry, and pharmacy areas.

The providers were separated and worked according to their specialties, but all providers worked hard to alleviate long lines in other areas.

"Our medical team had two pediatricians, four general medicine physicians and one local general medicine doctor," said Rossum. "Additionally, the medical staff had four nurses and eight medical technicians."

The medical services were broken into four components; a nurse managed the triage, the medical technicians ran vitals, and there was general medical, and pediatrics. The team saw more than 3,140 adult patients and about 1,500 pediatric patients which is about 330 patients a day.

"The patient flow began with each patient being assessed at triage then processing through to vital signs and finally patients were referred to either pediatrics or general medicine," commented Rossum. "Once patients were diagnosed, they were sent to the pharmacy to receive their prescriptions."

Patients who required additional or more in-depth services were referred to the local partnering health providers who were present at all four treatment sites. These providers coordinated medical services that were beyond the Air Force team's current capabilities.

During the intake and triage of the patients, the nursing staff also took the opportunity to provide public health and hygiene counseling.

"Our dental team had three Air Force Reserve and one Air National Guard dental officers with three Air Force Reserve dental technicians," said Rossum. "We also had at least one local dentist onsite. They really provided a great help with the difficult extractions and translations."

Although the team only had a handful of members fluent in Spanish, the other team members rapidly learned common Spanish phrases which significantly helped with patient communication.

"They have nowhere to go for needs like dental and optometry care," said Maj. Zachary Timko, 926th Aerospace Medicine Squadron and senior administrator for the trip. "The mission gives you a completely different perspective on what we have in the United States, what we take for granted."

With little access to and availability of facilities there, local citizens stood in line for hours on end to be seen. The dental team saw 656 people during their 15 day stay and conducted more than 825 tooth extractions. One in four of the dental patients were under 12 years of age.

"People waited from nine a.m. to four p.m. to see a dentist. Who in our country would do that?" said Timko. "It's a luxury to them, not a need like it is for us in the United States. When you're talking about the hierarchy of needs--food, water, shelter--being able to see 20/20 is not on that list.

The Optometry team consisted of three optometrists and one ophthalmic tech.

"Our optometry team was extremely busy and had to request a local optometrist join them to keep up with the demand," said Rossum. "With the overwhelming requests for optometry services, an optometry triage was set up and initiated."

"We had an optometry and medical technician set up to conduct the basic vision testing," elaborated Rossum. "If a patient's vision was adequate, or only required reading glasses, the patient was given sunglasses and/or readers, and the patient contact completed. This really allowed the technicians to triage patients requiring optometrist care and those only requiring basic exams."

The team saw more than 3,235 optometry patients and handed out more than 2,380 pairs of glasses. The glasses were donated by the Lions Club's Lions Sight & Hearing Foundation of MD21 and included a wide range of adult single vision glasses, bi-focals, near vision prefabricated reading glasses, and glasses for children.

"The final piece to our team was the pharmacy section," said Rossum. "Their team was staffed with a pharmacist, a pharmacy tech, a medical tech, an administrative tech, and three interpreter volunteers."

"An extreme amount of work was done prior to the trip by Maj. Brian Sydnor from the 56th Medical Group," said Rossum. "He provided a pharmacy diagram and prescription templates with pre-packing and labeling that really helped facilitate the dispensing process significantly allowing for a smooth dispensing operation as they dispensed over 9,800 prescriptions during the two weeks."

"Our members received valuable hands-on training for the care they provided," said Simmons. "But the experience of taking care of people that are less fortunate will be an unforgettable mission in all of our careers."

One member in particular who had previously been on a Dominican Republic mission plans to seek out future opportunities. "Participating in a humanitarian is a very humbling and rewarding experience," said Staff Sgt. Laura Valenzuela, 926th AMDS medical administrative specialist.

"They're hard work and you need to adjust to the surroundings and expect long days. But when you see a smile on your patient's face you just want to keep going," she said.

As part of the closing ceremonies and as a thank you to the schools for hosting the clinics, members of the humanitarian team purchased baseball equipment which was presented by Tech Sgt. Henry Ruiz, 944th Medical Squadron diet therapy tech, to the children from the schools.

"The people of the Dominican Republic touched the hearts and minds of all of us," added Rossum. "It was an experience we will not forget."