LILONGWE, Malawi, May 12, 2011 — The nation known as the “Warm Heart of Africa” got a little warmer here yesterday as U.S. military and Malawi Defense Force members teamed up for a humanitarian civic assistance mission and provided free medical and dental care for hundreds of local residents.
The crowds began arriving hours before the official opening of the MEDREACH 11 clinic, with people of all ages hoping for a chance to be seen by a doctor, nurse or dentist. The local health clinic located on the city’s outskirts buzzed with activity as U.S. and Malawi service members welcomed visitors to the last of three humanitarian civic assistance outreach missions conducted since the exercise kicked off May 1.
Working in an open-air tent, Army Sgt. Jeffrey Niemi from the Army Reserve’s 399th Combat Support Hospital soothed a whimpering infant while testing her mother’s blood pressure. Next door, Army Cols. (Dr.) Beth Mazyck and (Dr.) Colleen Khoehn, also members of the 399th CSH, consulted with patients suffering from malaria, abdominal distress, HIV and other diseases and illnesses.
In the adjoining building, Air Force Maj. (Dr.) Joan Salido, an Air Force reservist from Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, studied the mouth of an elderly woman, preparing to extract the tooth that had caused the woman so much pain for so long.
Across the compound, Army Spec. Brian Zimmerman, a reservist with the 403rd Civil Affairs Battalion, greeted local residents as they entered a tent to hear a Malawi soldier teach them the basics about malaria prevention and how to get a free mosquito net to take home.
During a medical readiness education and training exercise held across town at the Lions Sight First Eye Hospital, Army Lt. Col. (Dr.) Darrell “Casey” Carlton from Womack Army Medical Center at Fort Bragg, N.C., prepped a 78-year-old man for cataract surgery that would restore the vision the man had lost years before.
By the day’s end, the numbers spoke for themselves. Six-hundred patients received medical care at today’s clinic, bringing the total number of patients served during three outreach missions to almost 1,600. Another 147 patients received dental care today, bringing the total since May 5 to 511. And another 308 patients had cataract surgeries; about 50 per day since the ophthalmology team hit the ground here May 3.
“We’ve exceeded all our expectations,” declared Army Lt. Col. Ronald Zessin of the Illinois National Guard’s 404th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade, serving as the U.S. exercise commander. “Even with our most-positive expectations, we just weren’t expecting this kind of outcome.”
MEDREACH 11 promotes interoperability between the U.S. and Malawi militaries and increases both countries’ medical capabilities. “Cooperation in the military is very important,” said Malawi Army Brig. Gen. (Dr.) Alfred Chitsa Banda, an internist overseeing the HCA outreach clinic. “We have different experiences in our careers, and we can learn from each other.”
Banda cited combat medicine skills the U.S. military has honed during operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and said his troops would like to learn from them as they deploy about 850 soldiers for a peacekeeping mission in Ivory Coast.
But Army Capt. Warren McTernan, a nurse with the 399th CSH, emphasized that the training goes both ways. “They teach us tropical medicine and how they treat their patients,” he said. “I think we’re learning more from them than they are learning from us.”
“You see diseases here you would never see in the states,” including yellow fever, malaria and measles, agreed Army Maj. Kevin Murphy, a 399th CSH nurse taking blood-pressure readings at the clinic.
“Getting this exposure and information exchange is really valuable,” he said. “It helps make you ready for the next possible deployments.” Meanwhile, Army Brig. Gen. Robert Pratt, commander of the 404th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade that is providing command and control for the mission, said MEDREACH 11 is reinforcing the skills needed to plan and conduct joint, combined operations.
The 100 U.S. participants in the exercise hail predominantly from the Army Reserve and National Guard, but participants also include a small contingent of Air Force Reserve dentists. In addition, active-duty Army ophthalmologists are conducting the eye surgery clinic. Pratt said the highly decentralized operation encourages junior leaders to step up to take responsibility far exceeding their pay grades as they work with their host-nation counterparts.
“We learn from each other, and what’s being learned here will make everybody stronger,” Pratt said. “It will make better teams and better leaders.” MEDREACH 11 participants report it’s some of the most satisfying training they’ve ever had.
“This is really gratifying work,” agreed Salido, as she prepared for a tooth extraction. “It feels great being able to deliver access to people who have very limited access to care.”
Zimmerman said he shot up his hand without hesitation when the 403rd Civil Affairs Battalion in Syracuse, N.Y., asked for volunteers for the mission. “This is meaningful,” he said. “We are doing something important and we are helping people. The experience we’ve gotten from this has been amazing.”
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)