News: US, Liberian military deliver medical support to remote mining villages
Story by Master Sgt. Brian Bahret
MONROVIA, Liberia – U.S. service members treating patients in Gondor Town, Liberia, watched as a man and young girl approached them, the girl’s wrist bent at an odd angle, her hand hanging uselessly.
The father, a gold miner from the village, explained in heavily accented English to the medics his daughter had injured her wrist in a fall several months ago, but he couldn’t afford the trip to the clinic.
“It didn’t heal properly,” explained U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Robert Gutman, deployed to Monrovia with Operation ONWARD LIBERTY (OOL). “She’s going to have to have physical therapy.”
Gutman, part of a 14-person medical outreach team including U.S. Army soldiers, U.S. Air Force airmen and Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) soldiers, provided medical treatment to more than 2,000 people in Grand Cape Mount County, Liberia, from July 1 to 4, 2013.
While the mobile medic team didn’t have the equipment or facilities to treat the girl, they showed the father physical therapy exercises, and wrote him an authorization for medical care at the closest medical facility.
Thousands of Liberians mine for gold and diamonds in camps hours away from the nearest medical facility. Their villages usually consist of structures made from mud-formed bricks, with thatched or tin roofs. There is no electricity, running water or plumbing.
Working in field conditions, with limited transportation and communications, the men and their family often go years without medical attention.
“The resources and the manpower just aren’t available for it,” said Gutman, a Ypsilanti, Mich. resident. “In this country, they get free medical care, but they have to make it to a medical facility. We’re outreaching well beyond the realm those clinics operate out of.”
The AFL partnered with the Ministry of Health for funding, supplies and coordination for the trip. U.S. service members from OOL provided logistic and medical support. The team visited three mining villages: Gondor Town, Keita Town and Gold Camp – chosen so people in surrounding villages could reach them.
Dr. Josiah George, AFL chief medical officer, said the team saw a full spectrum of conditions.
“We saw challenging cases, skin conditions, sexually transmitted diseases,” he said. “We saw the need, the volume and the load of malaria still prevalent in the country especially among children … we also saw other conditions that really caught our attention.”
Samuel Davies said the medical outreach was the first he has seen as a seven-year resident of Gondor Town. Lacking the qualified support, the villagers are left to their own devices.
“The last time I had a serious issue with my stomach, I tried to treat it for four days – it got worse,” said Davies. He was forced to take a motorcycle taxi to seek attention. Most villagers can’t afford to take the trip, he added.
He said the closest medical facility is four hours away. The treacherous ride is across miles of pitted jungle trails and several bridges, including three that are no longer passable. People have since built make-shift bypasses next to the bridges until repairs are completed.
“Could you imagine how difficult it is for someone who is sick having to travel on a motorcycle for that amount of distance? People die before they get to the hospital,” he said. “Once you get sick here, your life is in the hands of God.”
He said he appreciated the outreach team’s efforts. “The emotion for me today … I’m going to sleep beautifully and I’m going to sleep sound because I saw (the team) here.”
Julias Garbo, County Health and Social Welfare Officer, also accompanied the team. He said the outreach was necessary since many villages don’t have access to healthcare or medical facilities. Travel to the villages is limited to single-lane dirt roads often washed out by rain, and in many of the villages there is no communication.
Garbo said having a capable force like the AFL available is extremely beneficial.
“This outreach has brought a great relief to this neglected part of the population of Grand Cape Mount living in this forest area,” he said.
However, he said, the outreach is only one measure the Ministry of Health is taking to improve medical care across Liberia. He added that the county would like to do more mobile outreach missions like this until a trained staff and facilities are in place.
“We can help bring relief to those people until the government can build health facilities that will meet the needs of those people,” said AFL Private 1st Class Amos Tandanpolie, an HIV and AIDS counselor who traveled with the team.
Born in Grand Cape Mount County in 1983, Tandanpolie is the son of a former gold miner. When his mother died, he moved to Monrovia to live with his aunt, a nurse, and uncle, a doctor.
It was there he developed an interest in the medical field, and, since joining the military six years ago, he said he has received a lot of medical training.
“I feel humbled that I can come back to my people and give to them what I have learned,” he said. “To come back and serve my people in a positive manner, I feel overwhelmed.”
Tandanpolie said the outreach also improved the AFL’s image which was damaged during Liberia’s civil war.
“During the war, whenever these people saw someone in uniform, it indicated trouble, especially within the mining communities,” he said. “They knew they were going to be terrorized; they were going to be harassed to give money or minerals.”
Since the war, the AFL has been reshaped to be a force for good, he said.
“This time we were friendly and smiling and giving out free medication that cost a lot of money,” Tandanpolie said. “The people have accepted that the AFL is a force for good. Looking at the interaction between the locals and the military personnel, you see that it’s a different, new picture that we’ve created. We are here to serve them instead of the other way around.”
He said he’d walk from Monrovia to the villages, if necessary, to do another medical outreach mission.
“This is Liberia, and we took the oath to serve,” said Tandanpolie. “If that’s the way we have to serve our people to make Liberia better, I can do it any time when called upon.”
As the AFL’s chief medical officer, George said he was proud of the soldiers and added that the outreach helped dispel the notion that the men and women currently serving in the AFL “are just ordinary soldiers like before.”
He said seeing the soldiers in action helped the people understand the extent of the professionalism the new AFL has acquired.
“They were very impressed to see military nurses and doctors actually in the field carrying on military medical activities and services,” said George. “They were quite surprised, and that gave them a new impression of what the new AFL is all about.”