Home>Features>Feature - Smiles: They make the long days worth it during medical humanitarian mission
Lt. Col. (Dr.) William Dunlap, 944th Medical Squadron dentist, performs a tooth extraction at a temporary clinic set up in a school in Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic. Members of the the squadron partnered with other Reservists and Air National Guard members from nine different units to provide medical, dental, optometry and pharmacy care to more than 10,000 patients during their 15-day humanitarian mission in the Dominican Republic.
by Maj. Jessica Martin and Capt. Elizabeth Magnusson
926th Group/944th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
7/24/2012 - Citizen Airman/Aug 2012 -- After six months of preparation, two days of travel and a whirlwind two weeks of providing non-stop medical, dental and optical care, Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard members from 10 different units returned to their home stations 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 at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz., in partnership with the 926th Aerospace Medicine Squadron, Nellis Air Force Base, Nev.; 934th Aeromedical Staging Squadron, Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport Air Reserve Station, Minn.; 927th ASTS, MacDill AFB, Fla.; 476th Aerospace Medicine Flight, Moody AFB, Ga.; 163rd Medical Group, March Air Reserve Base, Calf.; 419th MDS, Hill AFB, Utah; 910th MDS, Youngstown Air Reserve Station, Ohio; 514th ASTS, Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J.; and Headquarters Air Force Reserve Command, Robins AFB, Ga., 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," said Lt. Col. Alfred Rossum, 944th MDS 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 AFRC 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 (Air Force specialty codes), you never know how it will turn out," said Senior Master Sgt. Anthony Simmons, 944th MDS first sergeant. "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. The medics worked up to 15 hours a day alongside members of the 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," Simmons said. "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. At each location the team set up medical, dental, optometry and pharmacy areas.
Medical services were broken down into four components: a nurse managed patient triage, medical technicians took vital signs, and doctors and nurses provided general medical and pediatric care.
"Once patients were diagnosed, they were sent to the pharmacy to receive their prescriptions," Rossum said.
The team saw more than 3,140 adult patients and about 1,500 pediatric patients, or about 330 patients a day.
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 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 officers and one Air National Guard officer with three Air Force Reserve dental technicians," Rossum said. "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 who were fluent in Spanish, the other team members rapidly learned common Spanish phrases that significantly helped with patient communication.
"They have nowhere to go for needs like dental and optometry care," said Maj. Zachary Timko of the 926th AMS, who served as 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."
Local citizens stood in line for hours on end to be seen. The dental team saw 656 people during its 15-day stay and conducted more than 825 tooth extractions. One in four dental patients was under the age of 12.
"People waited from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. to see a dentist," Timko said. "Who in our country would do that? It's a luxury to them, not a need like it is for us in the United States."
The optometry team consisted of three optometrists and one ophthalmic technician.
"Our optometry team was extremely busy and had to request a local optometrist join them to keep up with the demand," Rossum said. "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. 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.
"The final piece to our team was the pharmacy section," Rossum said. "This team was staffed with a pharmacist, a pharmacy tech, a medical tech, an administrative tech and three interpreter volunteers."
Rossum said Maj. Brian Sydnor of the 56th MDG did a significant amount of work prior to the trip. He provided a pharmacy diagram and prescription templates with pre-packing and labeling that helped facilitate the process of dispensing medication. The pharmacy team dispensed more than 9,800 prescriptions during the two-week period.
"Our members received valuable hands-on training for the care they provided," Simmons said. "But the experience of taking care of people who 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 mission is a very humbling and rewarding experience," said Staff Sgt. Laura Valenzuela, 926th AMDS medical administrative specialist. "It's 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."
"The people of the Dominican Republic touched the hearts and minds of all of us," Rossum said. "It was an experience we will not forget."