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Louisiana Guard completes Haiti mission

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Canadian, Colombian and American military medical, dental and veterinary personnel completed the first of four medical training exercises in Petite Desdunes, a small village several miles from the city of L’Estere in the Artibonite Department.

Army Capt. David Bourgeois, a Louisiana Guard member and the Task Force Bon Voizen medical exercise coordinator, said the joint forces clinicians evaluated and treated 7,412 medical patients, 642 dental patients, 1,123 optometry patients and 748 animals during the 10-day mission that ended May 18.

Based on a request by the government of Haiti, Bourgeois said the purpose of the mission 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.

Army Lt. Col. Marsh Shively, commander of the 420th Minimal Care Detachment, lead medical unit at Petite Desdunes, said the medical care being provided was basic “level one” evaluation and treatment.

Patients requiring higher levels of treatment were referred to the Ministry of Health per an agreement between the task force and the government of Haiti.

In cases where immediate action was required, some patients were transported directly to the hospital by the task force, Shively said.

“The women that we’re seeing are showing mostly GYN-type symptoms that are environmentally related,” said Shively, who is a nurse-practitioner when not in uniform.

“In children we’re seeing some congenital defects like nodules in different areas, [and] they all are nutritionally deprived,” she said. “You can tell that the majority of the children have abdominal parasites.

“The adults that we’re seeing mostly have long-term chronic problems, often endocrine, as well as orthopedic injuries that they’ve just dealt with over the years.”

Teaming up with the Canadians and Colombians was sometimes a challenge because of language barriers, said Shively, but it became a force multiplier because of the diversity and richness of experiences the various practitioners brought to the mission.

Army Lt. Col. Jose Rivera-Ruiz, a physician and chief of medicine at the Veterans Affairs Hospital in Alexandria, La., shouldered some of the translation responsibility between the Colombians, the Americans and the Canadians.

“Of course the challenge in a joint mission like this is having the ability to communicate and understand each other,” Rivera said. “However, the beauty of medicine is that it is a universal language. It’s what breaks down the walls and allows us to do our mission together.”

Completing the mission successfully required more than sharing the common language of medicine; it required the specific medical expertise each of the practitioners brought to the field.

The Canadians and Americans, all of whom were Reservists, brought along not only their civilian experience, but also their skill sets honed during wartime deployments.

The Colombian physicians, all of whom were active duty, were especially helpful to the Petite Desdunes exercise because of their experience treating tropical diseases and injuries in settings where resources are scarce and conditions are rigorous.

Colombian army physician Maj. Hernan Gonzalez said he and his fellow doctors frequently go on combat missions in the jungle for days at a time where the Colombian government continues to battle a stubborn Marxist insurgency.

One of the American physicians, Army Lt. Col. Jerrold Grodin, relished the experience of working with the Colombians and Canadians in a mission far-removed from the “trauma of warfare and all that is involved with that.”

Grodin, a cardiologist in Texas, has deployed overseas three times since he first entered an Army recruiting station the day after 9/11 at age 51.

“The reward for me is to work with other physicians in our hemisphere … our neighbors from fellow democracies … allies, and do humanitarian missions. I think that it fosters a great camaraderie,” he said.

One daily expression of the camaraderie shared each morning by the joint medical team has been the short medical lectures on prevalent medical issues in Haiti, which individual physicians have delivered each morning prior to seeing patients.

Canadian Forces reservist, Cpl. Anna Komosa, a medic from Montreal, summed up the overall good feeling team members have experienced.

“Very, very interesting … to see how everybody else works,” she said. “We very much connect together, we share the same values and there’s lots of respect.

“Everybody wants to help everybody – and that’s good teamwork.”

In addition to the missions in Petite Desdunes, two U.S. Army surgeons, Army Col. Paul Phillips III, an orthopedic surgeon, and Army Col. Eric Romanucci, a colorectal surgeon, shared their highly specialized skill sets in St. Marc with local resident doctors, spending time in the emergency room and the orthopedic ward with Haitian physicians at St. Nicolas Hospital.

Both physicians are members of the 94th Combat Support Hospital, an Army Reserve unit out of Seagoville, Texas.

“Compared to the civilian hospital that I visited in Afghanistan, this hospital is impressive,” Romanucci said. “They have an ambulance, and the place is very clean. They’re really doing a lot with what is available.”

Both doctors commented on the scarcity of medical specialists, and one Haitian doctor said there are a total of three neurosurgeons in the entire country, all of whom practice in Port Au Prince.

Pierre Woolley, a resident at the hospital, studied in the U.S. and France prior to returning to his native Haiti, and he is acutely aware of the disparity between the resources available to Haitian doctors and those in the more developed world.

“It’s a different way of practicing medicine, but it is still medicine. On the orthopedic ward, we are always in need of lots of plates, lots of screws. We must be very creative with what we have here,” Woolley said.

This pragmatic approach to medicine was not lost on the Army surgeons.

Both Phillips and Romanucci have practiced medicine on the battlefield of Afghanistan, and they are accustomed to working in austere conditions with whatever is available.

“It isn’t always about meeting standards as they exist in the U.S. It’s about doing what you can with what you have,” said Phillips.

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 is scheduled to 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.

Louisiana Army National Guard report