News: Eglin airmen utilize medical expertise in 'Healing Peru'
By Sara Vidoni
Team Eglin Public Affairs
EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. - On May 31, a contingent of Air Force medical professionals traveled to Peru in hopes of bettering the circumstances and improving the overall health of the Peruvian people. Five physicians from the 96th Medical Group joined eight other medical specialists on a two-week humanitarian mission to Andahuaylillas called Healing Peru.
Living on less than a dollar a day, consuming little to no clean water and having poor access to medical care, these are the conditions the native peoples of Andahuaylillas, Peru, encounter daily. On May 31, a contingent of Air Force medical professionals traveled to Peru in hopes of bettering the circumstances and improving the overall health of the Peruvian people.
Five physicians from the 96th Medical Group joined eight other medical specialists on a two-week humanitarian mission to Andahuaylillas called Healing Peru. The group was made up of medical personnel from military bases around the world including Lajes Field, Hurlburt Field, Ramstein Air Base, Fort Sam Houston and more. Upon arrival, the team provided free medical services, preventive health care and health education to the community.
"Healing Peru was established in 2007 by former 96thMDG physician, Maj. Nicholas Seeliger, while he was stationed at Eglin," said Capt. Winton Laslie, a flight surgeon at Hurlburt Field and medical director for Healing Peru. "He started this organization because upon visiting the small village of Andahuaylillas, he was shocked to find the conditions people were living in."
As a small agriculture town in the Peruvian mountains, the native peoples had little to no access to the kind of medical care needed for basic survival. Seeliger knew as an Airman, he had the resources in place to make a difference, according to Laslie.
Every year, Seeliger, currently based at Lajes Field, seeks out a group of volunteers to accompany him to Peru and provide the much-needed medical services to the native people. The Eglin Family Medicine Residency Program has played a pivotal role in supporting and providing volunteers. This year, four Eglin doctors joined the team including Capts. Sarah Balloga, Danielle Dufresne, Jenny Roper and Dorothy (Qori) Saune, of the 96th Medical Operations Squadron as well as Capt. Hannah Diaz, a nurse midwife from the 96th Surgical Operations Squadron.
The physicians fundraised throughout the year to help pay for their trip, which was considered a permissive TDY. Each Airman was financially responsible for their own trip expenses, but that didn't stop them from wanting to make a difference, according to Diaz.
"I was driven to volunteer for the trip because I had an amazing experience a few years ago volunteering for a similar trip to Ghana," said Diaz, who provided obstetrics and gynecological services to patients. "We definitely take for granted our access to medical care here in the U.S., and it was amazing to be able to provide care for a population of people that doesn't have that access. I found myself wishing there was more we could do for people, but everyone was grateful for the small help we could provide."
While in Peru, the physicians and their medical team provided a number of services including basic medical care, obstetrics, mental health, dental health and physical therapy.
"We find so many basic health issues due to lack of education and lack of resources," said Saune who provided medical check-ups and health education to patients in the clinic.
She explained how the older women have severe back problems from working in the field all day, children experience belly pain due to parasites, teeth are in poor condition from lack of fluoride and liver damage is abundant, because of the high amount of alcohol consumption in place of water.
The medical team provided two weeks' worth of clinics and home-based care in order to educate and diagnose as many patients as possible. They also provided basic medicines and pharmaceuticals that would otherwise not be available. The medicines were donated by pharmaceutical companies from across the country.
"One of the main reasons I went on the trip was because I wanted to see what medical care is like in an underdeveloped country, what challenges might be faced when practicing medicine and what types of challenges are tackled by patients in these environments," said Dufresne, one of the primary care physicians on the trip. "The biggest motivation for me was I might potentially make a difference. I learned something from each patient, which I hope to use in the future in both military practice, deployment settings or in the private setting."
The team saw more than 2,000 patients and provided more than 3,000 prescriptions during the two-week period.
"The Air Force doctors get so much out of this trip," said Laslie. "This experience teaches us what it's like to deliver medicine in third world conditions where you may not have all the supplies and resources you need. It really prepares us for our deployments knowing we may not always have the best possible tools at our disposal."
The five Airmen from Eglin were able to use this humanitarian mission as a source for their education. They learned about high-altitude medicine, tropical medicine and third-world medicine, all of which benefit their career in the Air Force as they provide services around the world in all types of conditions.
"I'm originally from Peru, so this trip was very near and dear to my heart," said Saune. "Every humanitarian trip I go on is different, but this was the first I have done with the Air Force. I learned so much from working with other Air Force doctors who have practiced medicine in different cultures and countries. Everyone brought with them a different experience and different piece of knowledge that completed the puzzle."
Overall, the medical team felt they walked away from the trip with more than they gave.
"The experience in Peru was truly humbling," said Laslie. "I remember a lady in her 80s waiting for hours in the hot sun to be seen in the clinic. In addition to medical attention, she also needed money. Instead of asking for money, she gathered a bouquet of wildflowers from the grassy hill and brought them down to sell to me. I was floored to see how this elderly lady represented so well the strong work-ethic of their entire people. It teaches you a lot about not taking what we have here for granted. We are so fortunate."
This was the sixth trip for the Healing Peru contingent. Starting in 2014, they hope to make trips twice a year.