Beyond the Horizon Medics Deliver Care, Smiles in Panama
MEDETE, Panama, June 10, 2013 – Army Maj. William Baker and his fellow service members knew they had a successful mission on their hands when hundreds of excited people arrived for the opening of each Beyond the Horizon medical readiness training exercise here. Some had awakened at 2 a.m. and walked six hours in their finest clothing to reach them.
As medical officer in charge of Beyond the Horizon 2013 Panama, Baker recently wrapped up the last of three medical exercises here, which included 11 days of free services in three remote Panamanian provinces.
Throughout the four-month mission, U.S. soldiers and airmen trained in a broad range of specialties worked hand in hand with medical professionals from Panama’s Health Ministry, delivering care to about 13,000 people.
“It was like being Santa Claus for Christmas,” Baker said of the opportunity to provide the care to people in poor regions with little access to specialized medical care.
The medical exercises, which included general medicine, dentistry, optometry, pediatrics, dermatology, obstetrics and gynecological, and pharmacy services, were part of U.S. Southern Command’s largest annual humanitarian civic assistance mission in Latin America.
Beyond the Horizon Panama also includes veterinary services and construction projects, and a similar four-month mission also is underway in El Salvador.
From its earliest planning stages, Beyond the Horizon 2013 Panama’s medical missions were seen as a win-win for everyone involved, explained Lt. Col. Malcolm Walker, an Army reservist from the Denver-based 244th Engineer Battalion serving as commander of Joint Task Force Panama.
The medical professionals, initially active-duty airmen from Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala., followed by Army reservists predominantly from Ohio and Texas for the subsequent rotations, tested out their ability to deploy and set up operations in austere overseas environments, he said. Typically working in schools, clinics and even tents converted into makeshift medical facilities, they treated patients with conditions not commonly seen in the United States: tropical diseases, leishmaniasis and worms, among them.
For the Panamanian government, the exercises dovetailed with a national campaign to extend the reach of medical services provided to citizens in some of the country’s most remote regions, said Dr. Alex Gonzalez Hidalgo, a special advisor to the health minister.
After a successful Beyond the Horizon 2010, also conducted in Panama, the ministry jumped at the opportunity to participate in this year’s mission to provide care in underserved areas. The staff selected eight exercise sites -- most in difficult-to-reach rural locations in the easternmost part of the country -- where populations tend to be poor and health care providers, particularly specialists, are few and far between, Gonzalez said.
Typically operating in schools temporarily converted into medical clinics, the Panamanian medical staff and military members worked side by side to deliver patient care. The Health Ministry workers gave immunizations to everyone who arrived for treatment, and also conducted preventive medicine classes that highlighted hygiene and healthy lifestyle choices.
From there, patients moved into a triage area, where the military specialists identified their medical needs and directed them to the appropriate treatment areas.
For many of the military members providing that care, including those with combat deployments under their belts, it was their first chance to practice medicine during a humanitarian assistance mission. Among them was Army Spc. Matthew Parker, an Army Reserve pharmacy technician from the 256th Combat Support Hospital in Ohio, who said he relished putting his skills to work in such a gratifying way.
Rather than setting up a mock hospital at a training post, issuing candy in lieu of real medications to role-playing patients suffering simulated traumas, Parker said, he’s getting to help real people with real medical needs.
“This is close to the heart,” Parker said. “It makes me extremely proud seeing how much help we can give in such a short amount of time.”
“I love it,” agreed Army Spc. Souheil Sarrouh, a combat medic from the 256th CSH on his first deployment since joining the Army in 2009. “I love this place, and I love what the Army is doing here. We are making a difference in people’s lives.”
Sarrouh said he joined the Army wanting to make that difference -- not just keeping the United States secure, but also demonstrating its heart to the rest of the world.
Their appreciation came in the fruit the local people carried to the sites to present their caregivers, and on the faces of the people they treated, particularly the children.
“They might not have had shoes on, but they were still smiling,” Sarrouh said.
Army Sgt. Geoffrey Erwin, an optometry technician from the Michigan-based 148th Medical Detachment, watched his patients’ faces light up as they tried on their new glasses for the first time.
“You’d see big smiles” as their worlds suddenly come into focus, he said. “It’s amazing what a pair of glasses can do in improving someone’s quality of life.”
For Army Lt. Col. (Dr.) Jim Hirsch, a dentist from the Army Reserve’s 965th Dental Company in Texas, the defining moments of the missions came each time he extracted a tooth. One patient came to the clinic with his teeth so rotted that he gladly had 13 pulled in one sitting.
“These people have lives with toothache and chronic pain for years and years,” Hirsch said. “We are relieving them of all that, and they are so appreciative of what we are doing here.”
Army Capt. Sarah Lewis, a critical care nurse from the 256th CSH, said she realized just how much of an impact she was having when a grateful patient informed her that she had named her newborn in her honor.
“Being a part of all this has been amazing,” Lewis said. “With what we have done here, we all gave them a little hope.”
While most of the medical staff treated human patients, Capt. (Dr.) John Turco, an Army Reserve veterinarian from Rhode Island serving in the 719th Medical Detachment Veterinary Services, was part of a four-person team that conducted veterinary services for pets and livestock.
It’s a mission that took them to some of the most remote areas of Panama, requiring them to travel up mountainsides, through cornfields and often far from the nearest roads. They fanned out across the region, providing vaccinations, deworming and parasite control for cattle, horses and other large animals.
“This was a great experience to put what I learned in school to use,” said Army Pfc. Brittany Walton, on her first deployment as a member of the veterinary team. “Being able to help other people is a great feeling.”
Panamanian Health Ministry officials said they, too, are excited about the outreach made during Beyond the Horizon 2013. Their goal, explained Dr. Iritzel Santamaria, a ministry planner and analyst, is to build on the foundation laid to extend more consistent medical services into the regions. By 2015, the government aims to reduce the ratio of medical providers to citizens in these areas from the current 1-to-3,000 to 1-to-500, she said.
In the meantime, she praised the infusion of services the troops provided during Beyond the Horizon -- and the long-term impact it will have. Local communities will benefit, not just from immediate care provided during the exercise, but also because it attracted people so they could get immunizations and preventive health education, she said.
“This mission has had a high positive impact on the population,” she added. “Both teams came together and developed a great working relationship that has been a tremendous benefit to the communities served.”
Participants in Beyond the Horizon said they’re gratified to make a lasting contribution to the Panamanians.
“It’s all about helping people, no matter where we are in the world,” said Turco. “That’s what it is all about.”
“We are here to help,” echoed Baker. “And when you are helping someone, providing something that they need, providing it for free and providing the best care we possibly can, it’s a great feeling.”