SAN ANTONIO -- A U.S. Army South and U.S. Medical Command (MEDCOM) annual cataract medical readiness training exercise (MEDRETE) was conducted in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic July 10-27. The purpose of the exercise was to help to build partner nation capacity, while providing humanitarian services and improving eyesight for hundreds of Dominican citizens.
The cataract medical mission planned by MEDCOM and working with Army South is led by Col. Darrel “Casey” Carlton, an ophthalmologist from Madigan Healthcare System, Fort Lewis, Wash. This is Carlton’s third time leading a medical mission in the Dominican Republic and he says the major difference this year is more host nation physicians leading and participating in much of the effort.
“What we’ve being doing here for the last few years has not only improved the eyesight of countless Dominicans, it has truly helped build partner nation capacity because we now have, more than ever before, host nation physicians who are trained and providing much of the care during this exercise,” he said.
Army Col. Dan Berliner, Army South command surgeon and deputy chief of staff for medical, said missions like this one support U.S. Southern Command’s theater security cooperation by, “improving the lives of people in our region by giving them sight,” while working alongside host nation physicians to help improve interoperability, “to build partner nation capacity and provide positive images to partner nations in the SOUTHCOM area of responsibility.”
SOUTHCOM and Army South’s area of responsibility (AOR) includes 31 nations and 15 areas of special sovereignty in Central and South America and the Caribbean. The two commands have conducted dozens of medical readiness and training exercises in its AOR each year over the last decade. These MEDRETEs have not only provided basic healthcare to rural populations in various countries, but is an excellent vehicle for medical personnel to receive training often in austere and difficult environments that are not easily replicated anywhere else, explained Carlton.
U.S. Army ophthalmologist, Maj. Eric Weber, from Walter Reed Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., who is on his first MEDRETE, echoed Carlton’s view of training, “I see more patients here with strabismus in a two-week mission than I would in an entire year of practice back home.”
Strabismus is a type of surgical procedure on the extra ocular muscles to correct the misalignment of the eyes. Of the more than 350 eye surgeries the team has conducted in two weeks, about 20 percent of them have been for strabismus. The remaining procedures were primarily for cataract, refractive and nonrefractive and droopy eyelid issues or procedures.
Weber says there is no other training environment like this one where you gain so much experience in such a short period of time, while also working closely with host-nation medical colleagues.
Dominican Col. (Dr.) Arturo Aquino Espinal, chief of the ophthalmology department at the Central Hospital of the Armed Forces in Santo Domingo, where the two-week mission is taking place said, “Building relationships among our colleagues from both countries has been amazing.”
“Working alongside the U.S. doctors, I’ve done more than a dozen eye surgeries in two days,” said Espinal.
In addition Espinal said, “the U.S. and Dominican ophthalmologists share medical and surgical experiences with each other, which help improve our skill set.” One example, Espinal provided was when he took Carlton one night to meet with a local group of Dominican physicians to share new concepts in eye treatments.
“Sharing experiences, meeting with colleagues and helping poor people are the most beautiful and rewarding experiences,” said Espinal.
Carlton added, treating Dominican citizens, “which is most important,” also builds relationships with our colleagues and help their capacity to conduct various new surgical procedures. “I met Espinal last year at the Society of Military Ophthalmology in Orlando, Fla., and now we are here together sharing this experience,” Carlton said.
The medical mission also provided an opportunity for Dominican doctors, third and fourth-year medical residents, to train and conduct surgery alongside U.S. military ophthalmologists.
“The willingness of the American doctors to teach them [the residents] the techniques and let them work hands on, so they are really happy about it,” said Lt. Col. (Dr.) Robert Risk, a Dominican army ophthalmologist.
Marcela Mejia, a Dominican physician and fourth-year medical resident, has conducted several eye procedures this week, while working alongside U.S. ophthalmologists. “It has been amazing. They have been super nice…they teach you the techniques they use,” said Mejia.
A further testament to the success and importance of the medical mission is when U.S. Ambassador to the Dominican Republic, Raul H. Yzaguirre showed up at the hospital on July 23 to thank the medical team and meet with patients.
Col. (Dr.) Kevin Winkle, from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, and the rest of the medical team was very appreciative of the ambassador coming by to thank the team. The ambassador’s visit and the satisfaction of seeing parents smile after a procedure has dramatically improved their children’s eyes have been some of the most rewarding experiences, said Winkle.
“There is nothing more satisfying than seeing the look on a parent’s face when you made their child’s eyes straight or certainly the look on somebody’s face who couldn’t see and the next day the light of day has kind of dawned on them in a new and personal way,” said Winkle.