Air Guard Medical Team Provides Care in Africa
By Lt. Col. Don Accamando, 171 ARW/PA
/ Published December 08, 2009
Dec 2009 -- As citizens in the tri-state area fret over the effects of the H1N1 virus, Airmen of the 171st Air Refueling Wing, Medical Group were treating life threatening illnesses this country has not experienced in decades.
Fifteen airmen assigned to the Wing deployed to Uganda, in western Africa to participate in a humanitarian medical mission, as part of Operation Natural Fire 10 (ONF10).
The team deployed in early October and is part of a larger Air National Guard medical element made up of 28 total airmen from five different states. Their mission, provide a variety of medical services to citizens in Northern Uganda. Once on location, the team visited three separate rural villages in the Ugandan countryside.
This all-Guard contingent served as part of a joint interoperability exercise and coupled its expertise with local doctors of the East African Community (EAC).
Their work was not routine, in fact malaria, sickle cell, worms and parasitic disease plague the population. Often time working in austere conditions with minimal equipment and substandard medial supplies, the medical team overcame many obstacles to provide care.
"This work is challenging, because these are diseases not normally seen and have severe health consequences for the population. The most severe being cerebral malaria, carrying a 20% mortality rate," said Col. Alan Hodgdon, medical element commander.
On a routine day the medical element consisting of two dentists, two optometrists, and six medical providers, would examine more then 1,000 patients.
"These team members are used to working with the best equipment and help, but were confronted with the challenges of the third world country," Col. Hodgdon said, "seeing these types of patients brought a special sense of accomplishment, because the specialists were able to help patients in their native setting."
Regardless of the outcome on patient heath, one thing was obvious, the success of the mission came about because of the basic similarities of medicine regardless of the patient.
A standard day consisted of a 12 - 14 hour work shift, followed by dinner, medical de-brief, a hand bath with bottled water and some restless sleep in tents. "Quite the experience with mosquito netting; I'd do it again, everyone enjoyed it!" said Col. Hodgdon.
"The professionalism, courtesy and empathy of the entire medical team epitomize the humane nature of the talented mena dn women of the 171st Medical community," said Lt. Col. Bill Post, 171st Medical Group, Operations Officer and deployed team member.
The conclusion of the medical endeavor gave pause for team members to reflect on the significance of their efforts. "I had no idea what to expect because I had nothing to base it off of. I've been to many third-world countries but I'd never been to Africa before," said Staff Sgt. Sellinger, a medical technician. "It's always eye-opening to know what other countries are going through. It gives you a new perspective on how you view your own life. The people were so appreciative for us being there."
The short lived but outstanding efforts of the medical team did not go unnoticed or unappreciated. The Kitgum District Government Sub-County of Mucwini, Chairperson, Olanya Ford Francis wrote, "On behalf of the people of Mucwini Sub-county and on my own behalf, I would like to put in black and white our esteemed appreciation for the humane and enormous support given, and may the good Lord guide you always in your endeavors in supporting the vulnerable community like Mucwini."
Medical care is just one part of ONF10. In Kampala and Entebbe, two other cites visited by ONF10 senior military and civilian officials underwent a tabletop exercise to test their skills in a disaster relief scenario.
The exercise, called Natural Fire, offers a chance for African and U.S. militaries to work together and improve capabilities to respond to complex humanitarian emergencies. The 10-day exercise focuses on training and civic assistance.
Natural Fire was first held in Kenya in 1998, with U.S. partnerships. Since, then it has been held every two years. In 20000, it grew to include Tanzania and Uganda, as well as the U.S. and Kenya.