News: Service member at end of road providing medical care to Panamanians
Story by Sgt. 1st Class Walter Van Ochten
YAVIZA, Panama U.S. military medical members go to the end of the Pan-American highway to begin a medical readiness training exercise (MEDRETE) bringing medical aid to those living in and around Yaviza Panama, May 13 as part of Beyond the Horizon-Panama 2013.
The medical team was comprised of individuals from all over the United States including Reservists, National Guardsmen, active duty service members and Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) cadets, who served as translators.
Yaviza is a town of about 1,500 people in the Darien Province of Panama and marks the end of the northern part of the Pan-American Highway, at the Darien Gap. The Darien Gap is the only break in the highway that runs from northern Canada down to Argentina in southern South America.
To get to the Dr. Manuel A. Nieto Hospital in Yaviza, site of the MEDRETE, service members had to be bused almost two hours from their staging area in Metete to just out-side of Yaviza. Then, they walked though the town on a narrow pedestrian suspension bridge over the Rio Chucunaque, which marks the unofficial end to the northern part of the Pan-American Highway.
On the first day, that put the service members over the river, but their supplies were on the other bank of the Rio Chucunaque.
Local boats were recruited to move the supplies across the river. Maj. William Baker, of the 4005th U.S. Army Hospital at Ellington Field in Houston, Texas, who is the medical officer in charge of MEDRETE's for BTH-Panama 2013 requested an “all free hands down to the river” to assist with the equipment unload. Medical personnel, Panamanian Police (SENAFRONT) and local Panamanians worked together to unload and hand transport the equipment and supplies in 100-degree temperatures with high humidity up the steep slope of the riverbank and finally on to the hospital.
The day started with a 4:30 a.m. wake-up call. Five hours later and almost on schedule, the workday began for the medical team as the first of around 100 patients started to filter through the different medical care stations that were set up.
“We have pediatrician, general medicine, OBGYN, optometrist, dentists and a pharmacist here,” said Sgt. 1st Class Jacob L. Dye, non-commissioned officer in charge of MEDRETE B, of the 256th Combat Support Hospital, a U.S. Army Reserve unit out of Ohio, “We are here to provide basic medical care just like when you go to see you primary medical physician when you get sick, where not doing any surgeries by any means however our dentists are doing some extractions.”
The medical team offered general medical services to a large number of patients in a short amount of time. Since the hospital in Yaviza is fully outfitted, it can refer anyone needing specialty treatment to the Panamanian doctors for follow-up visits at a later time.
Said Rolando Briz, Servico Nacional De Fronteras (SENAFRONT) Sub-Commissioner of police for in the Yaviza area, of the type of treatment offered at the MEDRETE “This is very adequate for the needs of Yaviza; everyone is very happy”
Many of the patients came from Yaviza proper, but many of them came in from the river towns of mystic and majestically Central American botanical “Garden of Eden” rainforest that is in the Darien Gap. Basically, it is a swamp that has few roads, and the one from Metete is severely pitted with potholes. For the ethnically diverse villagers of the Rio Chucnaque river towns, the river itself is the only viable means of transportation.
According to Rolando Rojas, director of Dr. Manuel A. Nieto Hospital, the difficulties in travel did not dissuade the people and “everyone is taking advantage of the opportunity for the free medical treatment that is provided.”
Said Briz, “The people know there is a doctor here 24 hours a day, [but he was] amazed how many people reacted to the MEDRETE and came here.”
“The patients are very cooperative and receptive to the services that we are providing,” said Maj. Micheal Cole, a dentist from the 965th Dental Company, 807th Medical Command (Deployment Support) about the Panamanians patients he had seen. “They’re very thankful for us being here and are very-very nice people”.
Beyond the Horizon-Panama 2013 is a U.S. Southern Command-sponsored, U.S. Army South-led exercise deploying U.S. military engineers and medical professionals to Central America for training and to provide humanitarian and civic assistance in cooperation with the host nation.