Med Group team brings helping hands to Suriname

by Christopher Kratzer
Air University Public Affairs

6/30/2011 - MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. -- Members of the 42nd Medical Support Squadron have spent the month of June taking part in a medical readiness training exercise, or MEDRETE, in Suriname. The exercise not only sharpened the team's medical expertise, but impacted more than 6,000 patients in need of medical attention, according to Lt. Col. James Barber, the mission's commander and commander of the squadron.

The team of veterinarians, general practitioners, optometrists, dermatologists, pediatricians, dentists and pharmacy techs included 11 from Maxwell who performed an array of medical tasks, from pulling teeth to filling prescriptions.

"The MEDRETE was developed to enhance relationships with countries that are medically underserved," Colonel Barber said.

Suriname, a country on the northern coast of South America slightly larger than the state of Georgia, has a population of almost 495,000, most of whom live on the coast. It is very ethnically diverse and the smallest sovereign state in South America.

Even though the exercise called for volunteers, Colonel Barber didn't have any problem filling the spots.

"Everyone on the team volunteered to come on the trip, and we had more volunteers than spots available," he said.

While the trip was rewarding for each volunteer, it was also quite the culture shock.

"You quickly realize everything you take for granted stateside from potable water, to the local steakhouse, to a safe place to exercise outside," said Colonel Barber.

"Everyone on the team enjoyed delivering much-needed healthcare to the Surinamese population. The lines for care wrapped around the tents we had established to protect them from the elements."

Protecting them from the elements was no easy task. Suriname experiences the majority of its yearly rainfall during May and June, according to the U.S. Department of State website, and this year wasn't any different.

"It rained every day, and the temperature had to reach the mid 90's," Colonel Barber said. "It never deterred those waiting in line, and being able to deliver the care they needed was the most enjoyable part of the trip."

Despite inclement weather, the mission was a huge success, he said.

"We definitely achieved the goals of this trip. We've seen ... patients who would otherwise not have had care provided. Our group was dedicated, professional and everyone excelled at their assigned tasks as well as stepped outside their comfort zone," Colonel Barber said. "I think everyone would volunteer for the next trip if they could."

John Henry, the mission's planner, said that the mission was not only a huge success but also very rewarding.

"The most rewarding part of these exercises is pulling a group of professionals together from multiple locations and coming together as a team to complete our mission," Mr. Henry said. "Seeing the patients leave with a smile after being treated, talking to them and learning the cultures and how they live makes the whole trip a success."