Tropical Training Produces New Skills, Fresh Smiles
By Douglas J. Gillert
American Forces Press Service
SANDY POINT TOWN, St. Kitts, May. 17, 1999 Air Force Sgt. Shawn Guers tightly gripped the steering wheel of the minivan, occasionally rubbing his hand across the windshield to remove the fog. For only his second time driving the narrow, twisting island roads, on the left side, with a column shift, he managed well, dodging traffic and parked cars, cutting through lashing rain to get the Air Force-Army medical team to the Sandy Point Health Center.
Besides driving, the security forces specialist from Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho, would provide security outside the clinic while the military ophthalmologists and a medical technician went to work delivering clearer vision to the gathered throng.
An intense, early morning tropical shower failed to deter a large crowd of children and adults from packing the front porch more than hour before the medical team arrived. They smiled and waved, then divided to allow the medics bringing them eyeglasses entry to the clinic.
Army Dr. (Col.) William Wilson, chief of glaucoma surgery at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Washington; Dr. (Capt.) Jeffrey Yee, a general ophthalmologist at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas; and Tech. Sgt. Melodia Woolford, an independent duty medical technician (only medic assigned) from Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., set up shop. They determined how to handle the group in order to see everyone and keep them moving through the clinic. Local nurses assisted them and asked that children be seen first so they could return to their schools.
Two at a time, the children came, dressed in uniforms matching their school colors. Wilson took refractory readings, determined their prescriptions. He told those who didn't need glasses, "Your vision's fine," patted their shoulders and sent them on their way. "We can help you see much better," he promised those needing glasses.
Used eyeglasses, hundreds of them, were divided by ranges of prescription, tinted and untinted, in boxes in the next room. Lions Club International donates the glasses Yee and Woolford waited to help their new owners select.
"This pair looks fine on you. Do you like them?" Yee asked one shy little girl who shook her head "no." "How about these?" Again, no. "These?" No. "These? You look real nice," he said, fitting the glasses to her and standing back to watch her reaction.
"You look very pretty with them on," Woolford assured her. And finally, the girl shook her head "yes," offering a wisp of a smile. She then was brave enough to ask for the plastic, zip- locking bag the glasses had come in, because even at her young age of 10, she knew she couldn't be seen wearing glasses all the time. She'd need a fine new holder to go with her fine new glasses.
"OK, you can have the bag," Yee said, and she took it and left, skipping down the steps and out into the now steamy, bright morning.
Under a large tree, old men and women sat on folding chairs and fanned themselves as they patiently waited, glaucoma clouding some of their eyes, hope etching their faces each time they saw one of the Americans who came to help them see better.
On the side yard, children laughed and frolicked in a tight circle around Guers as he showed them his security police equipment and explained its uses. As the children passed and exited the clinic, some with new eyeglasses, some not, minivans arrived, large script letter decals pasted across rear windows spelling the names of American icons like "Popeye" and "Bugs Bunny" and "John Wayne." By noon, the children were mostly gone, but the adult crowd seemed to have grown and would move much slower through the clinic.
A pickup truck arrived with sandwiches and soft drinks for the medics, courtesy the 832nd Red Horse Squadron, host to the medics and on the island erecting buildings as part of the U.S. hurricane relief assistance to the island nation. Hurricanes Georges and Mitch devastated St. Kitts in 1998 just as they did much of Central America. Their bad luck has proven to be an ideal training ground for U.S. military forces participating in the U.S. Southern Command's annual New Horizons exercise.
The docs' job is winding down. After two weeks on the island, they have seen hundreds of patients and delivered eye, dental and orthopedic care, including many outpatient surgeries. To a person, they've declared the experience positive and rewarding, professionally and personally. They'll return to their home stations in Texas and Washington and plan future trips, to Honduras and Costa Rica, for example.
The Southern Command sponsors six to eight such trips every year as a means of building relationships with countries in its area of responsibility, Central and South America. The visits also provide the medical teams vital experience working in tropical and often primitive field conditions, learning to think on their feet and resolve human maladies quickly, like they would have to do often for deployed service members. They learn to travel lightly, bringing portable equipment and working with foreign medical staff. They come to teach and to learn, but in the end, mostly to help deliver a level of health care their patients seldom see.
"We can't follow up the care we provide but depend, instead, on the local medical staffs," said Air Force Dr. (Col.) Steve Waller, director of ophthalmology at Wilford Hall Medical Center, Texas, and team leader on St. Kitts. "These visits allow us to make contacts with our professional counterparts and share some medical experience. We don't have all the answers, and they may have their own unique way of doing things that we can learn from. But in the end, it's just great being able to help these people."
Woolford and another medical technician will remain here after the medical team leaves, continuing their primary mission of providing medical care to the engineers and security forces until June 1, when they, too, go home, and the island resumes its quiet, slow tropical pace. They'll take with them the memories of the help they've provided and leave behind more than a few fresh smiles.