Story by Sgt. Aaron LeBlancGONAIVES, Haiti – Canadian, Colombian and American military medical and dental personnel completed the third of four medical training exercises as part of Task Force Bon Voizen on June 8 in Bocozelle, a small village outside the city of St. Marc in the Artibonite Department.
According to the Task Force Bon Voizen deputy medical exercise coordinator, Louisiana Guardsman, 1st Lt. Samuel Dupas, the 45 joint-forces clinicians evaluated and treated around 7,700 patients. The clinic was also host to three live births during its 10-day rotation.
The purpose of the mission, according to Dupas, was to provide real-time, real-world training to joint-forces medical personnel, while concurrently providing humanitarian medical services to the citizens of the Artibonite Department based on a request by the government of Haiti.
The majority of the U.S. medical personnel that took part in the exercise are members of the 59th Medical Wing out of Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. U.S. Air Force Maj. Sandra Keesee, a native of San Antonio, is the director of medical logistics with the 59th and served as the officer in charge of the clinic in Bocozelle.
“Many of us come from a 4000-personnel wing, and most of us don’t know each other. So to come here as a group and really work together from day one was overwhelming,” said Keesee.
“At the end of the day, we knew that we made a difference in at least in a few people’s lives,” she continued. “There were a few cases where some of the doctors, had they not been here … some of the kids that they saw would not be alive today. So that was very fulfilling.”
One physician who very likely saved lives during the exercise was U.S. Air Force Col. Joseph Novak, a maxillofacial surgeon also from the 59th. Novak, a former Marine and native of Broomfield, Colo., explained his willingness to help with straightforward language.
“When I go back home, I’m not going to have to carry five gallons of water five miles every day for my subsistence. My home has glass in the windows, so I don’t have to worry about the fly population invading my living space. I’ve been blessed with the skills that I have and where I live, so – why wouldn’t I work hard while I am here?” said Novak, after having pulled 88 teeth by lunchtime, June 6.
He continued “We had this one infection that we sucked 25 cc’s of puss out of. This guy was sick. You know, dental infections can kill you. I had a few people who were heading south really fast. We had a couple of saves that, had they been left untreated, they probably would have died.”
“It’s amazing what can happen when you administer a high dose of antibiotics, drain puss the old-fashioned way, and take out the cause of the infections, which were rotted out teeth,” Novak added.
Lt. Cmdr. Michael De la Roche from Belleville, Ontario, of the Canadian Force Services Primary Reserve List, was another physician who took part in the exercise. When not in uniform, he works as an emergency room doctor, and he said that his time in Haiti gave him perspective that he wouldn’t have had otherwise.
“I got a better understanding of the very primitive conditions, and how in some cases culture and religion can trump medicine and technology. That was a very useful and educational experience,” De la Roche said.
U.S. Air Force Maj. Kelly Morales of San Antonio, who is an obstetrician and gynecologist with the 59th, echoed his sentiments.
“Dealing with cultural differences was a challenge,” she said. “Some of the patients we saw have a strong belief in Voodoo. And it impacted how seriously they took the care that we gave them and how they care for themselves. There were a couple of cases where lives were at risk because they relied on Voodoo instead of western medicine.”
Competing philosophies regarding health and well-being was not the only challenge to be overcome. The clinic’s remote location, coupled with the transient nature of the operation, conspired to create an environment more spartan than some of the participating physicians had previously worked in.
U.S. Air Force Maj. Emily Wong from Billings, Mont., a resident dermatologist with the 59th, said that this was her first experience in a country like Haiti.
“In dermatology, we use a lot of diagnostic tools that we weren’t able to use, like biopsies, and slide preparation. So we had to rely strictly on what we saw. That was the biggest challenge for us,” said Wong.
“I think it’s excellent to step outside your comfort zone, and to practice in a place where you don’t have all the diagnostic and treatment tools you’re used to having,” continued Wong. “And for dermatology, it’s very good to see how different skin types present differently. So for my specialty especially, it was a really good experience.”
Morales shared Wong’s appreciation for the value of the training opportunity.
“There is quite a bit of pathology here that we don’t typically see at home where there is different sanitation, different hygiene, and different preventative care, so it was valuable to see some of this pathology that maybe we’ll see in a textbook back home,” Morales said.
One particularly valuable training experience was afforded U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Douglas Rozelle, a medic with the 59th Medical Wing. Rozelle, a native of Crestview Fla. who aspires to be an ER doctor, delivered a baby at the Bocozelle clinic, June 6, under the watchful eye of Dr. Morales.
The mother, Michelle Louna, a 20-year-old resident of Bocozelle, arrived at the clinic on foot at around 9 a.m., and was already six centimeters dilated, according to Rozelle.
“We had her walk around the clinic for an hour and we checked her again, and she came back and was still at six,” Rozelle recounted. “So we said ok, we’ll give you one more hour. So she came back after that second hour, and she was at eight, so Major Morales popped her water, and it was just a waiting game from there.”
He continued, “About twenty minutes later, it was time, and it went pretty quick. After about fifteen minutes and one good push, the baby came. My whole thought process was ‘don’t drop the baby,’ and I am going through in my head what I have to do: ‘my hand’s got to be this way, I’ve got to push down; I’ve got to push up.’”
“It was just an amazing experience. The delivery of life is… you can’t put it into words, it’s just awesome. We got a little bit of training when we went through our technical school when we go through the EMT portion, but I had never done anything like that. That was the first time. Maj. Morales told me what I needed to do and I did it,” Rozelle concluded.
“I’ve had a tremendous experience,” said De la Roche. “Working with the U.S. and Colombian troops has just been a real pleasure and an honor. That’s been the most enjoyable part – actually working with these colleagues. We all chipped in and worked towards a common goal, regardless of specialty or skill set, and got the job done.”
Task Force Bon Voizen is a Commander, U.S. Southern Command sponsored, U.S. Army South conducted, joint foreign military interaction/humanitarian exercise under the command of the Louisiana National Guard. Task Force Bon Voizen is deploying U.S. military engineers and medical professionals to Haiti for training and to provide humanitarian services. Task Force Bon Voizen will build a school, two medical clinics and a latrine facility, as well as staff three medical clinics and one dental clinic between April 28 and June 25 in the Artibonite Department.
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