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Sunday, September 24 2017 @ 12:46 AM EDT

Medical mission takes Air Force crews to Panama

Expat TalesBy Jenn Rowell for the Montgomery Advertiser.com - Medical personnel at Maxwell Air Force Base who got into the profession to help people didn't lose that dream when they donned a military uniform. Members of the 42nd Medical Group volunteered to spend two weeks in Panama on a humani­tarian mission. On the busiest day, the team of 15 American military physi­cians saw 1,400, patients said John Henry, the medical readi­ness manager at the Maxwell clinic. They never saw fewer than 500 patients a day. The team returns to Maxwell today. A variety of doctors make up the team, including family prac­tice physicians, dentists, pedia­tricians, dermatologists and op­tometrists. The government of Panama augmented the Ameri­can team with their own med­ical personnel and an ob-gyn to help screen and treat the flood of patients. (more)

About half the 15 medical per­sonnel are from Maxwell and the rest are from seven other Air Force bases nationwide. The team includes two non-med­ical personnel from Maxwell. All volunteered for the mission.

Lt. Col. Joseph Lopez is a fam­ily practice doctor with the 42nd at Maxwell and also the mission commander in Panama.

This is his fourth Medical Readiness Training Exercise, or MEDRETE, and he said he still enjoys it. The career doctor served in the Army during De­sert Storm, but left for the civil­ian sector. After a few years, he returned to the military, this time the Air Force.

Military medicine, he said, of­fered a chance to treat people in foreign countries on trips like the one to Panama.

"It's been a lot of fun for me," Lopez said by phone from Pana­ma. "Gratifying as well as some­thing that's been a lifelong dream of mine, to be able to help people in these impoverished countries and be able to do something for them."

It also helps train the medical personnel to work in environ­ments other than Maxwell, he said. While the trips like the Panama MEDTRETE are hu­manitarian efforts, they offer vi­tal training for medical person­nel who might end up deployed.

Training is a two-way street on these missions, too.

The American physicians learn about diseases uncommon to the U.S. and are able to help the Panamanian doctors and people.

Public-health classes for the local people are a big part of the team's duties in Panama.

"Things that to us we take for granted," Lopez said. "For them it's something new that you have to wash your hands to pre­vent diseases. It's something a lot of them don't know about."

Sunglasses as eye protection are also a new concept to some in the impoverished areas of Panama, said Sr. Airman Dext­er Raflores, an optometry tech­nician.

Raflores has seen more than 200 patients a day in the optome­try clinic the team set up in Pan­ama.

He and his associates have identified more than 100 cases of glaucoma, and prescribed med­icine to help. They've done vi­sion screenings and have given out all the eyeglasses they came with.

"It's a great opportunity to help people and see a different way of life and it makes you ap­preciate what he have back in the U.S.," he said.

He said the best part is "watching them walk away hap­py because they can see."

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