The value of a 2nd opinion: 4th Med Group Airmen deliver medical care

SEYMOUR JOHNSON AIR FORCE BASE, N.C. -- "The infection was becoming septic," said Capt. Craig Richters, 4th Medical Group nurse from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C. "The care saved his life or at least his limb."

The mother brought her teenage son to the small team of 14 Airmen who traveled to various austere locations throughout northern Bolivia providing humanitarian medical care for 10 days in September. Her local clinic, which lacks basic diagnostic equipment, told her that the golf ball-sized knot causing so much pain in her son's knee was from a bug bite. She was sent home with no medication.

Col. Martin Johnson, 314th Medical Group chief of medical staff at Little Rock Air Force Base, Ark. and team dermatologist, assessed the infection as necrotizing fasciitis, a type of flesh-eating bacterial infection.

Using basic field medicine, Colonel Johnson opened the wound and expressed the puss with no anesthesia due to the nature and location of the wound. He followed that with injections of antibiotics. The mother followed the path of the Airmen daily for the follow up care.

"The young man was feeling well and walking on his own by the end of the mission," Colonel Johnson said.

"We shipped $45,000 worth of medicine weighing 6,000 pounds to Bolivia," said Lt. Col. Dean Doering, 4th Medical Support Squadron commander and team chief of the humanitarian mission. "Mostly we gave out multi-vitamins and parasitic medications."

A truck guarded by the Bolivian military carried the pre-packed prescriptions to each new location.

The team included 12 Airmen from Seymour Johnson, one from Little Rock and one from the Kentucky Air National Guard and was selected for the humanitarian mission by the Air Force Southern Command after they volunteered their unit to participate in medical readiness training. Their collective specialties addressed general medicine, pediatrics, optometry, dermatology and dental care. Patients lined the dirt streets in every town they visited; an average of 400 per day and almost 700 on their busiest day.

The optometrist with the team saw everything from those in need of glasses to patients without eyes.

"I saw well over 100 patients every day there," Maj. Gary Poland, 4th MDG optometrist said. "Only about one out of every 100 needed nothing from me."
At his home station he sees only 15-20 patients daily.

Maj. Poland used an auto refractor to diagnose prescriptions and then paged through the glasses donated by the Texas Lion's Club to give them the closest match to their need. He gave out 922 glasses.

"Sometimes they laughed at the large glasses, but they left actually seeing," Colonel Doering said.

Everyone on the team noted the vast difference in the medical options available to these Bolivians compared to Americans. Most are lucky to get basic medical care and a second opinion is a rarity.

"Many of the cases that we saw were things we normally only see in medical books, such as leishmaniasis" said Maj. Ruth German, 4th MDG family practice physician. Other physicians echoed her statement.

"I saw several cases that would've been addressed as a lump in America, but here the cancer goes undiagnosed until it becomes large and grossly deformed," Capt. Richters described.

Tech. Sgt. Chel Simonsen, 4th MDG assistant dental technician, was used to seeing patients with toothaches.

"Many patients' teeth could not be saved, so we could only pull them to relieve the pain," said Sergeant Simonsen.

Some words team members used to describe the people included kind, hearty, humble and gracious.

"I felt bad because I was wet from sweat and a few people kissed me," Captain Richters said.

"Even though there was a language barrier, you could feel that they were grateful for what you did," Tech. Sgt. Simonsen said.

"I think we all wanted to be involved in this mission," Major German said. "The children wanted to touch my uniform or my hair. The little girls running around liked to see the female physicians."

We talked to them about brushing their teeth and staying in school, she said.
"If they stay healthier as children, their brain development can be improved and their lives lengthened," she added. Major German said the trip was very rewarding for her and she summed it up with a message she thought was left behind.

"People from America care about you and want to help you."
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