Yukon Delta Villages Welcomes Military Medical Teams

Navy NewsStand

Story Number: NNS090315-03
Release Date: 3/15/2009 4:26:00 PM

By Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Matt Grills

BETHEL, Alaska (NNS) -- Teams of Navy, Air Force and Army health care providers treated hundreds of villagers, and their pets, in the Yukon-Kuskokwim region of Western Alaska March 6-15 as part of Operation Arctic Care.

"We've received very positive reports of the work happening in the villages, and they've truly welcomed our people," said Navy Capt. Elizabeth Reiser, Arctic Care 2009 officer in charge. "In fact, there's been disappointment when a team has had to leave early or couldn't arrive as planned. There's been plenty to do, and our providers have been busy the entire week."

With more than 200 participants, this year's Navy-led medical readiness exercise began March 6, deploying mixed teams of doctors, dentists, optometrists and Army veterinarians from Bethel, Alaska, to 11 villages: Alakanuk, Atmauthluak, Chevak, Hooper Bay, Kalskag, Kwethluk, Kwigillingok, Mountain Village, Newtok, Quinhagak and Toksook Bay. Three other villages – Kotlik, Russian Mission and St. Mary's – also requested and received service.

With a population of 730, Kwethluk – whose name comes from the Yupik word "kwikli," meaning "river" – was among the first villages to receive an Arctic Care team. Arriving March 6 on an Alaska Army National Guard Black Hawk helicopter, Navy and Air Force personnel immediately set up shop at the local health clinic and began seeing waiting patients.

"I first read about Arctic Care in the newspaper, and I was very interested," said Elia Sergie, a resident of Kwethluk. "As soon as they came, I called and made a dental appointment for my son."

Dylon Sergie, 2, sat calmly as Navy Capt. Doug Henschel of Reading, Pa., a dentist attached to the 14th Dental Company, gave him two fillings.

"This is the first time he's had this stuff done," Sergie said. "I heard a team is going to Kalskag, which is where I'm originally from. I hope to hear good things out of there. A lot of people don't have access to this type of health care. It's in Bethel, but you have to have transportation, room and board, and a lot of people don't have money for that."

Arctic Care 2009 is conducted in cooperation with and under the supervision of Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation (YKHC). Reserve and active components of the Army, Alaska Army National Guard, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and Coast Guard provide Arctic Care's personnel and equipment, with uniformed officers from the U.S. Public Health Service also participating.

"This is my first Arctic Care, and it's great training," said Navy Capt. Cynthia Heins, commanding officer of Operational Health Support Unit Headquarters Camp Pendleton, the exercise's host. "I had to literally dust off a lot of my cold-weather gear, but this is a chance to make sure it's all in good working order."

In Kwethluk, Heins practiced adult medicine, treating a broken finger and a bilateral ear infection. She also saw more serious cases, including hypertension and congestive heart failure. Air Force Tech Sgt. LeTroy Mays of the 445th Aerospace Medical Squadron assisted by doing lab draws, double-checking vital signs and clarifying doctor's orders for patients. He also spoke to school classes about preventative health care the dangers of bullying.

"I believe this is one of the best operations I've been a part of," Mays said. "I'm working with different branches of the service, and everybody knows his or her job. We don't have any weak links."

When Kwethluk team members arrived, children were standing at the edge of the runway to grab their hands and walk them to makeshift quarters at their school, said the village's operations officer, Navy Capt. Elaine Walker of Operational Health Support Unit San Diego Detachment C.

"The people welcomed us with open arms," Walker said. "One night they even fed us spaghetti in someone's home. I couldn't make it because I was seeing patients, and they brought some to the school so I could have something to eat. This is a very trusting, open community."

The village, though, isn't like most she's seen, Walker said. "This is a unique part of the country. These people don't have running water, yet they are United States citizens. So I have special feelings toward them."

Mountain Village, population 757, received five Arctic Care health-care providers: a family-practice physician, a critical-care nurse, a nurse practitioner and an emergency medical technician/CPR instructor, all Navy, and an Army dental technician. The physician, Cmdr. Nancy Moya, saw up to 30 patients a day. A visiting YKHC dentist saw 10 patients a day.

"It's been hectic," said Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Chris Lutton of 4th Marine Division, Weapons Company 223. "We've seen a lot of patients who don't normally get a chance to see a doctor for foot problems, back pain, whatever. If it's something they'd need to see a doctor about in Bethel or Anchorage, they can come in and get a referral or hopefully have the problem taken care of here. The clinic staff has been wonderful, opening up several rooms for us."

Outside the clinic, Lutton taught a CPR course, talked to students about the importance of staying in school, and carved out time to attend a youth basketball game.

Edna Apatiki, principal of Ignatius Beans School, praised the Arctic Care team for taking an interest in Mountain Village's children.

"The teachers love to invite them into their classrooms to talk about health care and military careers," Apatiki said.

Military members slept in the school at night, on wrestling mats, and ate breakfast each morning with students.

"They swarmed around us, asking questions," said Capt. Elisabeth Wolfe of Naval Medical Center Portsmouth, who served as Mountain Village's operations officer.
"They're very curious, very excited to have us here. We took pictures with them and showed them what MREs are and how to work them; everybody got to try a little bit of chocolate peanut butter and jalapeno cheese."

As military doctors and dentists treated adults and children, Army Staff Sgt. Christiana Ramos and her colleagues of the Western Region Veterinary Command traveled village to village offering animal care and teaching bite prevention. A veterinary technician, Ramos participated in two previous Arctic Care missions: Nome in 2006, and Kotzebue in 2007.

"Everybody owns animals," Ramos said. "We need to make sure they are vaccinated, and we try to encourage them to spay and neuter their animals so they don't have too many pets running around. Some do; others are not too keen on it. But they definitely want to have the vaccinations."

Operation Arctic Care is sponsored by the Innovative Readiness Training program under the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Reserve Affairs.

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