CHUNOX, Belize - With approximately 17 years in the Canadian Army, one doctor has finally had the opportunity to travel internationally while wearing her country's uniform.
Canadian Army Capt. Noémie Johnson, a licensed family physician, is on her first deployment and is taking advantage of the training opportunities offered to her while providing medical care to Belizeans near Corozal, Belize.
The path Johnson, a native of Quebec, Canada, traveled to end up in Belize involved an extensive education and a change in career goals, but ultimately led her to operating in family care.
A graduate of the Royal Military College of Canada, she began with studies in physics and astrophysics, and then continued to serve three years as a signals officer responsible for enabling commanders to have command and control over their units by maintaining computer network, radio, satellite and phone communications.
"I enjoyed my work a lot, and I could've progressed in that career. But it would have meant a lot more of managing and engineering technical projects, and I really like to work with people," Johnson said. "I had slowly been thinking about medicine to work more closely with people, and I essentially just applied."
Johnson, who joined the service at 17 years old, remained on active duty, or regular forces, for the duration of her four-year medical school education at the University of Sherbrooke in Quebec as well as her two-year residency.
Years later, Johnson finds herself providing care to Belizean people alongside Belize and U.S. medical professional counterparts during the New Horizons Belize 2014 medical readiness training exercises, or MEDRETES.
The training exercises are a two-way partnership during which Belizean and U.S. participants can benefit from working with one another as they share knowledge in their respective specialties of general medicine, dental and veterinarian practices. Sharing lessons learned and best practices between the countries' medical professionals is advantageous to both countries as they strive to better the care provided.
"This is my first MEDRETE, and I think it's a great opportunity," Johnson said. "The medicine is a lot different; it's a bit more limited. I enjoy the opportunity to come out and practice medicine for real compared to having training exercises where you go through scenarios. I think it's nice to actually see patients and learn for myself while I'm helping the population.
"Being with the U.S. forces is also an enjoyable experience," she added. "I think the combination of resources here gives us some valuable opportunities. Often we end up deploying overseas together anyway, so it's good to get that experience in this type of environment."
Gaining deployment experience in a less austere environment can provide a precious training opportunity to learn valuable lessons before potentially deploying in a hostile environment.
"I think it's neat to practice the international deployment aspect of our jobs while we're in a very safe situation," she added. "The fact that we're not practicing in the setting of a formal clinic or in the setting of a formal hospital and with the limited resources we have here has required me to adapt.
"It's a reality that I am actually learning from this, and I think I am going to benefit from this," the physician said. "The humanitarian thing is something that I am really interested in, so I'm glad I got to do this as part of my job."
Though this is the first international operation for Johnson, it is not the first extensive training and education opportunity she has been afforded. While in the Canadian Army, Johnson received her degrees, went through jump school with the infantry and attended a flight surgeon course.
"I've had a lot of educational opportunities while I've been in the military, and I'm very fortunate for that," Johnson said.
With a variety of experiences in her 17-year career, Johnson said working in Belize has been the one of the greatest.
"I would say so far this is definitely one of the highlights since I've been in the military," she exclaimed.
Johnson has nine more years of obligatory service remaining and will consider her options for the future when the time comes.
"Really by that time it will be a choice of career, location, family. There are definitely some good opportunities in the military, but I will have to balance that," Johnson said. "The 17 years in the military has gone by very quickly. I actually can't believe it sometimes. It does go by fast."
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