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New Horizons help Belizeans see more clearly

  • Published
  • By Capt. Holly Hess
  • New Horizons Belize Public Affairs
U.S. military medical personnel partnered with the Belize Council for the Visually Impaired and the Southern Regional Hospital in Dangriga, Belize, to conduct an ophthalmology medical readiness training exercise May 31 through June 14.

Ophthalmology is a branch of medicine dealing with the functions, structure and diseases of the eye.

The 15-day medical exercise is part of a larger exercise called New Horizons. The team is conducting cataract surgeries, retina laser procedures, and pterygium removal. Pterygium is a growth of scar tissue that grows from the white part of the eye onto the cornea and is very common in Belize due to intense UV radiation from the sun.

New Horizons partnered with the BCVI and the Southern Regional Hospital to coordinate the logistics and patients required for the MEDRETE.

BCVI played an important role for the ophthalmology mission.
"Their main role was multi-faceted," said U.S. Air Force Col. (Dr.) Mary Brueggemeyer, commander of the 774th Expeditionary Medical Operations Squadron. "One, is to assist in the identification of patients who would benefit from our services. Two, is to assist with the local requirements ... to provide us with the knowledge we need to prepare us what to expect.

"It would have been much more difficult to identify patients. The follow-up piece is very important. [BCVI] will be available to assist with post-operative follow-up of some of our patients."

BCVI helped add a local level of trust to the mission.

"They made it easier because the patients are very familiar with them and their services," said Brueggemeyer. "We were working with a local organization that is already respected."

Additionally, staff members from the local hospital are assisting, and members of the MEDRETE team are lending a hand where they can, even if it is not in their traditional job-related role.

"The nursing staff here is assisting us in the operating room and turning over patient movement," said Maj. (Dr.) Matthew Caldwell, ophthalmologist from the 59th Medical Wing at Wilford Hall Ambulatory Surgical Center at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. "Everybody helps out doing whatever needs to be done. Everybody does a little bit of everything."

The surgeries the New Horizons medical team is performing can have big quality-of-life improvements for the patients and their families.

"Cataracts are potentially blinding. You can go from not being able to see a hand move in front of your face, to being able to read the newspaper after cataract surgery, so it's a big functional improvement," Caldwell said. "It depends on how advanced the cataract is, how big of an impact it has on their life."

Pterygium removal, another surgery the team is conducting, can also have a big impact on patients.

"Sometimes, if a pterygium is very advanced, it can cause vision to be very blurry." Caldwell said. "If it's large enough, and in front of their vision, it can have a big visual impact."

Caldwell also stated the pterygium may cause patient discomfort.

"A lot of times the pterygia are smaller, and the surgery is more of a comfort issue where they feel more comfortable and don't have the daily pain and inflammation after it is removed," he said.

According to Caldwell, normally the focus of these missions is cataracts, but because there is a different need in this community, the MEDRETE also focused on other eye procedures.

"Because we had less of a volume [of cataract surgery patients], we wanted to try and open up to what the local needs are," Caldwell said. "In addition to pteryium patients, [this community has] a lot of patients with diabetes and with other blood vessel disease in the back of their eyes that need laser procedures."

Retina laser procedures are often a preventative treatment.

"Patient's may not notice any immediate improvement in their vision but the chances of them [not] loosing their sight to diabetes ... is much improved," Caldwell said. "It's really a save-the-eye sort of treatment. It may not give better vision but helps prevent them from going downhill."

Margery Muschamp, family member of two cataract surgery patients, said her brother and sister will have the opportunity to enjoy more of their hobbies.

"They will read more," she said. "I am happy for you guys that are here helping. You are wonderful people ... very kind."

To date, the ophthalmology MEDRETE team conducted 14 cataract surgeries, 22 pterygium removals, and 15 retina laser procedures. The team expects to complete an additional 20 procedures by the end of the exercise.

New Horizons is a U.S. Southern Command exercise that gives U.S., Canadian and Belizean personnel an opportunity to train jointly in an exercise setting, in order to be prepared to meet future challenges. The exercise began April 1 and is scheduled to run until June 30. Personnel also provided general medical care, dental care and are building several classrooms throughout Belize as part of the training.