Air Force medics provide humanitarian aid to Dominicans

  • Published
  • By Dale Eckroth
  • Headquarters Air Force Recruiting Service
Long before the Caribbean sun rises above the dusty foothills of the Ocoa Mountains, word spreads throughout this small town that the "miracle workers" are coming. They're on their way. They'll soon be here.

Lines of residents form outside the local school waiting for the first signs of the "miracle workers'" caravan. Young mothers with newborn infants and elderly residents barely able to walk make their way to the school.

As the caravan winds through the narrow congested streets, Dominican military guards prepare for the arrival by keeping excited crowds back from blocking the school's entrance.

As the first vehicles arrive, residents watch with eyes wide open as medical supplies are unloaded and carried into the classrooms, which will serve as the triage, pharmacy, dental, optometry, public health and general medicine clinics. These "miracle workers" are U.S. Air Force members here to provide medical care to this poverty stricken community.

The team is comprised of officers and enlisted members from the 910th Medical Squadron at Youngstown Air Reserve Station, Ohio, along with members from Pittsburgh Air Reserve Station, Hill Air Force Base, Utah, and Travis AFB, Calif.

They've come to the Dominican Republic as part of a medical readiness training exercise, or MEDRETE, in support of the U.S. Southern Command sponsored exercise "Beyond the Horizon 2009 Caribbean."

Beyond the Horizon is a joint Department of Defense and interagency humanitarian civic assistance program designed to foster goodwill and improve relations between the United States and the governments of Colombia, the Dominican Republic and Jamaica.

"Poverty is high in Azua and residents here have no resources for outside medical care," said Federico Lopez, of the Force Protection Detachment with the U.S. Embassy. "The average income is 400 pesos a month, or roughly $12.

"Although the community [population 59,000] has a small hospital operated through the country's public health system, residents would rather be treated by Americans, who they refer to as miracle workers, instead of their own physicians. They know they'll receive good care."

"It's very gratifying to be able to help these people," said Lt. Col. Carolyn Katrinchak, a nurse practitioner with the 910th MDS. "We've seen infants as young as a few weeks old to a woman who claimed to be 120 years old. This mission allows us to use the skills and training we've received to treat a variety of conditions."

Lt. Col. Rodney Waite, 910th MDS dentist added, "It's great to use the skills I've learned as an Air Force dentist and to use them on people who have access to little or no dental care. People who are in obvious pain from infections, teeth that are badly broken and who need extractions have come here.

"Very few civilian dentists have opportunities like this to participate in a humanitarian mission. It's truly an eye opening experience."

When the team completes its two-week mission May 8, the Air Force estimates it will have provided badly needed medical care to nearly 10,000 residents in Azua and Padre de Las Casas (population 27,000). Both towns are located two hours southwest of the Dominican capital of Santo Domingo, and about a three-hour hour drive from the Haitian border.

In Padre de Las Casas, an 83-year-old woman entered the clinic suffering from a rash and back pain. When Maj. Susan Chaffee, a nurse practitioner, prescribed medication and vitamins for her condition, the woman quietly explained she had no way to pay for the medication. "It's free," said the major speaking through a translator. "You owe nothing."

Sporting a big smile, the elderly woman exclaimed, "Te amo. Amo a Americanos!" which means, "I love you. I love Americans!"

Before leaving the clinic, Major Chaffee and others gathered around the woman for a group photo. 

"This is what it's all about. This is why we're here," said the major.

"This humanitarian mission wins the hearts and minds of all Dominicans," Mr. Lopez explained. "It shows the U.S. military is not just a uniform at war, but rather a uniform providing good and compassion. It helps put a smile on everyone's face."

With no high-tech equipment available and using only hand-held instruments, the medical team can only provide basic medical care such as vision exams, eyeglasses, tooth extractions, creams and ointments, antibiotics, ibuprofen and vitamins.

"We've seen a variety of conditions including colds, allergies, joint pain, tooth decay and gum disease, sexually transmitted diseases, skin rashes and fungus," said Major Chaffee. "Many of the patients suffer from a lack of nutrition. We tell them to eat more fruits and vegetables and to make sure they drink plenty of water. For the more serious cases we tell patients to follow up with their own doctor."

As the warm late afternoon sun gives way to gentle mountain breezes, the medical team knows it's time to pack up for the day. The few locals still in line are asked to come back tomorrow. The "miracle workers" will be here one more day.