Soldiers from the South Dakota Army National Guard traveled to the South American country of Suriname to provide medical and dental services to the local population of Albina, April 10-12.
Nine soldiers from the SDARNG’s Medical Command and 730th Area Support Medical Company worked alongside Suriname defense force medics, a local doctor and pharmacy personnel to provide services to residents in the rural community.
“A significant need for rural dental care, as well as medical care, was identified as part of an ongoing exchange with South Dakota’s partner country,” said Maj. Ronovan Ottenbacher, a field surgeon in the 730th ASMC and provider in Medical Command. “This was a first-ever ‘ground-up’ mission for the SDARNG medical-dental community in Suriname.”
The SDARNG team was comprised of two medical providers, two medics, three dentists and two dental technicians, some of which have been to Suriname before.
“We were able to see different methods of medical care unique to that area. We do not get a lot of exposure to jungle medicine in South Dakota, so I know the medical team learned and saw unique and challenging situations,” said Col. Murray Thompson, a dentist and officer in charge of SDARNG team.
Once the team arrived at Suriname’s capital city of Paramaribo, they had only one day to prepare equipment and supplies for the daily trips to Albina, about 90 miles away. “This mission was put together in a hurry,” said Thompson. “In fact, we were not exactly sure of which equipment we had available as it had to be shipped down early without us being able to look at it due to a blizzard and moving drill that weekend. Basically, everything we were doing had never been done before in that area. We did not even know exactly what the facility looked like until one hour before we began seeing patients.”
Each day they linked up with the Surinamese team then traveled to Albina, a town of approximately 5,000 people. There were lines waiting for the team every morning. Over the three days, the team saw nearly 300 patients for a variety of medical needs.
“One of the last and strangest patients I have seen was a middle-aged gentleman who came with an extremely swollen leg, walking in on sandals expanded and held together with rope,” said Ottenbacher. “The patient had severe lymphedema (swelling), which may have been secondary to elephantiasis, a condition which can be caused by parasites living in the lymphatic system. The patient had a large ulcer on his leg related to the swelling and was infested with [parasites],” Ottenbacher said. “These were removed and then the wound bandaged by the team’s medic. The patient had future surgical care arranged via the Surinamese team.”
The vast majority of patients came for simple complaints such as head to toe body pain for many years. Many parents also requested anti-parasite/de-worming medication for their children.
“The translators played a critical role in helping the Dutch and local-dialect speaking Surinamese,” said Ottenbacher.
The dental team performed nearly 400 adult and pediatric tooth extractions. “As the community had almost no access to dental care, the dentists had an immediate impact on the patients’ pain and issues,” Thompson said. “Although restorative dental care is something important to dentists, we recognized the utility of extractions in a mission like this. The time required for extractions is significantly less than other dental work and the reduction in pain can be tremendous.”
A key member of the South Dakota-Suriname team was Dr. Paul Aikman, medical director of the Paramaribo Military Hospital. For this mission, he was the lead Surinamese doctor on site, as required by their Ministry of Health. “Due to certain infections and GI (gastrointestinal) parasites, Dr. Aikman noted that Surinamese providers will not use over the counter medication from the United States at the full dose,” said Ottenbacher. “As he put it, the aspirin can potentially make the patients die. This was one of several examples where common medical treatments had to be tailored to the local needs.”
Aikman added, “What was notable was that we as medical personnel think alike, and we approach patients more or less the same way.”
On-site sterilization was another obstacle that needed to be accounted for, said Ottenbacher. It was only one of the electrical difficulties, although electrical outlet types and voltage had been taken into consideration.
“As a physician and as a soldier my goal is to help others, and with this population, many times that could be accomplished with the simplest of things,” said Ottenbacher. “Handing out bags of vitamins, giving patients the opportunity to discuss their problems, handing out stickers and small toys such as sunglasses for girls and cars for boys — all these impacted their lives.”
“Being able to put on the U.S. Army uniform and provide top-notched professional care to those in need shows the world that the U.S. and the SDARNG care for humanity and desires a world where pain decreases and dignity and comfort increases,” Thompson said.