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Medics provide health care to remote Alaska

  • Published
  • By Maj. Jennifer Sur-Watanabe
  • 624th Aeromedical Staging Squadron
Maj. Jerelyn Pedrina and I represented the 624th Aeromedical Staging Squadron at this year's Operation Arctic Care, a joint military medical readiness exercise that brings no-cost health care, health education and veterinary services to underserved people in Alaska's Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region.

More than 200 service members (including 23 Air Force reservists) traveled to Bethel, Alaska--the staging point of the mission. From there, we were flown by the Army in Blackhawk helicopters to 11 different villages in the remotest regions of western Alaska. I was assigned to Atmautluak, which is 20 miles north of Bethel. The population of Atmautluak is 284 and they speak English and Yupik, which translates as "real human." 

There was no running water in the homes or in the clinic. During our deployment, we lived in the school, which had running water and showers but the water would run out and showers were a luxury. We ate MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) for all our meals while in the village and walked to and from the clinic in weather that was zero to 40 degrees below with the wind chill. I wore two sets of thermal underwear with my parka in an attempt to keep warm. 

Our team consisted of six core members: two Navy reservists, two Air Force reservists and two Air Force active duty. For two days of the exercise we had a physical therapist, an audiologist and an Army veterinarian team. 

I worked with Doctors Gerald Delk and Roger Park in the Atmautluak clinic and treated 90 patients ranging in age from six-months old to people in their 80s. 

Most of the patients we saw were treated for chronic illness such as hypertension, diabetes, arthritis, chronic back pain and migraine headache. We treated a few acute problems such as abscesses and urinary tract infection. We saw two infants for respiratory infections; we had to have them transported via bush plane to Bethel Hospital. 

I was told by the health aide that the children in Atmautluak start chewing tobacco at age four or five. So, I also taught oral care and the harmful effects of chewing tobacco to all the students in Atmautluak School, which included kindergartners up to 12th graders. 

We saw 354 patients and performed 627 procedures. The vet performed 185 procedures on 84 animals. In total, we provided medical services to roughly 77 percent of the Atmautluak population. 

This was a wonderful experience for me. I have a new understanding and appreciation for the native population of Alaska, the hardships they endure each winter, and how we take daily conveniences for granted. 

One reason for establishing Arctic Care 15 years ago was to enable medical personnel to operate in a joint environment. Each branch of the military takes turns leading the annual training. The Army was in charge last year, the Navy led this year's training, and the Air Force is slated to lead the exercise in 2010. 

I encourage anyone who has the opportunity to volunteer. I would definitely do it again.