10/09/06 — 12 SJAFB airmen return from Bolivian humanitarian mission

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12 SJAFB airmen return from Bolivian humanitarian mission

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on October 9, 2006 1:48 PM

A 14-year-old Bolivian boy endured a quarter-mile long line before taking a seat on a desk in a makeshift clinic.

He didn't know what was wrong with his knee -- it just hurt, he told doctors.

The boy might never have known that what started as a routine bug bite would likely have killed him had the infected wound not been treated by a group of humanitarians who arrived earlier that day.

"He had what looked like just a bug bite, a mosquito bite to the knee," 4th Fighter Wing Medical Group Nurse Capt. Craig Richters said. "The dermatologist immediately assessed the knee. It was infected. It saved the kid's life or at least his limb. He was going septic. But he wasn't quite there yet. Even after that, he was appreciative."

Richters and 11 other airmen from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base's 4th Medical Group recently returned from a 10-day tour in northern Bolivia, where they provided health care to thousands of natives.

Members of the group said in every village they visited, new challenges were waiting among the hundreds lined down dirt roads.

On a typical day at Seymour Johnson, Maj. Gary Poland, 4th MDG optometrist, sees no more than 20 patients, he said. And that's a full docket.

But during his stint in Bolivia, he saw "well over 100 patients every day," he said.

"There definitely were a lot of unique things that you don't see here in the states because we take care of them much earlier in the process," Poland said. "Everything from completely blind eyes to simple things that could be surgically fixed here in the U.S."

Despite the overwhelming number of patients, he stayed committed to giving each person the best care possible, he said. Maybe that's why in just 10 days, he had given out more than 900 pairs of prescription glasses.

"We tried to provide them with glasses close to what their prescription would be," Poland said. "Most of them would be happy just to walk out with something they could see better with. Even if they weren't 100 percent taken care of, at least they were given something."

With each new town, the airmen were forced to make do in Third World conditions, pharmacist Maj. Douglas Odegaard said.

"In one of the rooms, we would grab a desk, open up a window and pull up a chair," he said. "We did whatever we could and put together a make-shift pharmacy. On average, I would say we saw 400-plus patients and filled anywhere from 800 to 1,000 prescriptions a day."

Not many of the 4,100 patients needed nothing, he added.

"Almost every patient would require some parasitic medication and we passed out vitamins as well," Odegaard said. "If they had a problem much beyond that, we gave them antibiotics or creams -- whatever was required to take care of business for them."

Maj. Ruth German, a family practice doctor at Seymour, said most of the complaints voiced by her Bolivian patients were routine.

"The majority of what we saw were a lot of pain complaints," she said. "You might imagine that people in Third World countries have a different standard of living. A lot of them sleep on dirt floors, have no running water to speak of. We saw a couple of more advanced cancers, but most of them just had a lot of body pain."

In the end, everyone who showed up to the make-shift clinics near the border of Bolivia and Brazil received treatment, group members said.

Lt. Col. Dean Doering, 4th Medical Support Squadron commander and team chief of the mission, said the patients were not the only ones who walked away feeling better. His airmen did, too.

"These were very gracious and humble people who appreciated us being there," he said. "They were kissing our hands when we would give them their medicine. It was a very enlightening and rewarding."

Richters said the experience gave him a new perspective on health care and made him realize all we take for granted in America.

"On a normal day, I get parents complaining about their child's runny nose and sniffles, but I know its just a cold and will get better on its own," he said. "These people, (in Bolivia), are walking around with growths on their nose -- cancer ... So, I want to say it's more rewarding on the fact that we take for granted, here, a little cold. There, they're out waiting in line around the fence a quarter of a mile for care."

Maj. German agreed.

"I think that's why everyone of us wanted to be a part of this mission," she said. "You don't get the opportunity to go to a place where people are really in need very often. We treat people who obviously deserve our care and work very hard for our country, but they have opportunities for good nutrition and education and care. These were basic needs we were providing to people. Even though we couldn't impact it for the long term, we got to touch someone's life and tell them that people from America care. It was an awesome experience."