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Medics in Panama Face Heavy Demand

Pesè, Panama -- The demand for eyeglasses has remained heavy throughout the last week-and-a-half here for Medical Readiness Training Exercise (MEDRETE) Panama, often outstripping the supply on hand.

There is a continual backlog of patients and frequent shortages of glasses of common prescription strengths have required purchasing in the local economy as shipping delays have kept 800 pairs of glasses out of reach of optometrists here.

"The demand for glasses way surpasses the supply," said Senior Airman Dexter J. Raflores, an optical technician from the 42nd Medical Group at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala., "but that is typical of missions of this type."

Donated glasses arrive in all shapes and varieties, a word often heard from patients here is "poquito" which means small; as smaller frames are in style here in this highly image conscious country regardless of one's personal wealth.

On one day in Cabuya, a member of Panama's National Police in plain-clothes covertly showed his badge and asked embarrassedly for a poquito pair because he said that he would be the joke of the police station with big glasses. A few days later, here at Pesè, this same policeman was on our security escort force and he pulled me aside to say he was very appreciative for his poquito glasses.

"When we do find the perfect pair of glasses for a patient, their smile says it all," said Maj. Christie L. Barton, an optometrist deployed to here from the Surgeon General's office at the Pentagon. It is heartwarming to know that not only can they see, but they will happily wear the glasses as well."

In sharp contrast to the United States where most people requiring eyeglasses are nearsighted (myopic) most eye patients seen during the MEDRETE here are farsighted (hyperopic).

Muscles in the eye can control farsightedness, before roughly age 40, by pulling on the lens to stretch the shape longer but cannot push on the lens to make it shorter to adjust for nearsightedness. As people age the lens begins to harden and muscles are no longer able to compensate. Because many of the patients here are farsighted, they often had good vision at a young age through adjustments from their eye muscles, but as they grew older their vision worsened.

Panamanian and U.S. Air Force doctors here are working together to give free medical care to patients in remote locations during MEDRETE Panama and have seen approximately 7,300 patients through the course of this MEDRETE. Two optometrists and two optical technicians are part of a 17-person team offering a variety of medical specialties.

Annually, the MEDRETE initiative includes the participation of more than 1,900 U.S. personnel treating more than 200,000 patients. The Panama deployment is part of the ongoing U.S. Southern Command MEDRETE initiative in Central, South America and the Caribbean. Air Forces Southern, the Air and Space component to SOUTHCOM, is responsible for managing all Air Force-related MEDRETEs. This year, AFSOUTH will execute 29 MEDRETEs.

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