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Medical exercise leaves real-world impact in Colombia

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Kerry Jackson
  • 12th Air Force and Air Forces Southern
A 14-member medical team from Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, and Offutt AFB, Neb., returned to the United States Friday after participating in a two-week medical readiness training exercise here.

The team of doctors and support personnel, together with Colombian health officials, provided medical attention to more than 4,000 underserved Colombian citizens while gaining the training necessary to effectively operate in a deployed environment.

"We are happy to have been able to provide medical attention to the people of Colombia," said Lt. Col. (Dr.) John LeVasseur, the MEDRETE commander. "It was an excellent opportunity for us to do what we love most and that's helping people."

Medical treatment was provided in dentistry, dermatology, gynecology, internal medicine, optometry and pediatrics. The team's goal was to reach as many people as possible within the short time they were in the country.

"If we could have helped every person outside our door seeking medical attention, we would have," said Dr. LeVasseur. "Unfortunately, with the limit on our time and medication, we were unable to."

Traditionally, Air Force medical exercises are simulated. Non-medical personnel are tasked to serve as mock patients, while other conditions are staged to create an environment similar to those in the field. This MEDRETE, however, allowed the team to have a more realistic training experience.

"Simulated exercises give us an opportunity to evaluate our ability to work in different environments and remains a valuable tool in improving how we do business," said Master Sgt. Diego Sanchez, the team's non-commissioned officer in charge and native Colombian. "The MEDRETE, however, is more like a 3D movie that brings us closer to the conditions we may see in a deployed environment."

The team went through the entire pre-deployment process, from arranging the logistics, personnel readiness, travel and other deployment processes vital to their success.

"This MEDRETE started long before we arrived in Colombia," said Sergeant Sanchez. "The planning and preparation was very much a part of the entire MEDRETE and was critical to our success in Colombia."

Several members on the MEDRETE team were Spanish speakers. This greatly contributed to the team's ability to effectively treat each patient. These members, along with Colombian translators, assisted in the two-way communication between doctor and patient.

"Not having the translators would have greatly handicapped our efforts," said Sergeant Sanchez. "The number of people we were able to treat would have drastically been reduced had it not been for our team of translators. I doubt we would have been as effective without them."

During the MEDRETE, the team visited three medical clinics spending more than $40,000 on medications and supplies to treat various medical conditions that ranged from parasite infections to life threatening diseases like abscesses. The team was also introduced to a number of medical conditions more common in South America.

Along with providing medical care, the team built positive relationships with their Colombian patients and medical colleagues often taking time to just talk and interact with them.

"We knew there would be conditions that we could not treat, but providing a (sympathetic) ear, a hug or even a little laughter seemed to be the perfect cure," said Dr. LeVasseur. "This allowed the Colombians to know we were sensitive and empathetic to their needs and we care."

The MEDRETEs are only one group of events in a broad range of activities that U.S. Southern Command carries out in its area of responsibility, Central and South America and the Caribbean. USSOUTHCOM sponsors approximately 70 MEDRETEs per year. Twelfth Air Force and Air Forces Southern, the air and space component to USSOUTHCOM, plans and executes about 30 of these MEDRETEs. For all U.S. Air Force-lead MEDRETEs in this AOR, 12th AF and AFSOUTH provides approximately a million dollars in planning and executing funds. On average, about 750 patients are seen per day during most AFSOUTH-lead general medicine MEDRETEs.