Air Force Medical Team Supports Humanitarian Exercise in Panama

May 23, 2018

Five members of the 2nd Medical Group, Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana, joined other teams of airmen, Marines and soldiers in support of the New Horizons 2018 humanitarian exercise in Panama.

New Horizons 2018 is a joint training exercise which provides training to U.S. military members in engineering, medical, and support services, as well as providing support to the Panamanian people.

Barksdale’s team of four dental personnel and one logistics technician joined 10 Panamanian dentists and five U.S. Army dental personnel to deliver needed services to communities in Panama.

The dental team leader is Air Force Lt. Col Joanna McPherson, 2nd Dental Squadron clinical flight commander, who said she’s excited to participate in New Horizons 2018 and grateful for the training it provides.

Valuable Training

“We have been able to train on equipment usage and utilization of our deployment dental units,” McPherson said. “We don’t get a lot of hands-on time with those units, but here we are able to learn about trouble shooting and maintenance for them.

“We also get to train on mission planning, logistics and preparations for operations of a large magnitude,” she added.

During the exercise, the medical team has participated in three separate medical readiness training exercises, each in a different location. The dental team’s goal is to provide care to as many people as possible.

“This is such a valuable service to them because they don’t typically have the capability of getting a teeth cleaning, without having to travel a long distance,” McPherson said. “Some here would go their entire lives without a cleaning.”

McPherson has participated in civilian humanitarian missions through dental groups, nonprofit organizations and church groups in Africa, Mexico and Jamaica. She has never participated in a military-led humanitarian exercise and is impressed with the number of patients the team has been able to treat.

“Overall we will see around 1,500 dental patients,” McPherson said. “Other missions I have been on, we saw quite a few patients but still a much smaller population.”

Combating Dental Diseases

Due to the dental equipment the team was able to bring, the level of care they are able to provide will go a long way in reducing oral diseases and conditions, she said.

The dentists were able to provide teeth cleanings that only credentialed providers are able to, cleaning far below the gum line. Cleanings that deep are able to relive pain and prevent periodontal disease, which causes pain, abscesses and bone loss, McPherson added.

For the medical logistics technician, the exercise has provided a unique experience.

“This has been my first deployment and it was definitely a training opportunity,” said Air Force Staff Sgt. Christopher Heard, 346th Expeditionary Medical Operations Squadron medical logistics technician who is deployed from Barksdale. “It has been an opportunity to see how we can set up a bare bone clinic, run efficiently and provide supplies for all the clinics. We are learning how to work with a plan and adapt on the fly, and this has been very helpful to being able to work around problems.”

Heard added, “New Horizons has also helped me understand the supplies acquisition process and how to provide input in order to try to prevent future loss by sending too much or too little.”

The New Horizons team brought enough supplies to care for more than 5,000 patients, said McPherson, who noted she’s proud of her comrades.

Building Bonds With Comrades

“Anytime you are working in close quarters in a stressful environment where you really rely on each other, you build a bond that is really unique,” she said. “I knew they were great before so I was really excited to get assigned to this team with them. They are very capable, smart and hardworking people. I am excited we are experiencing this together.”

The Barksdale team has also been working closely with Panamanian dentists.

“Working with them and seeing how quick they are taking care of patients is kind of eye-opening for us,” McPherson said. “In the United States, we have different standards and expectations. To see a patient and get a tooth pulled in about six minutes is unheard of, but they are used to that here.”

McPherson has also enjoyed her interactions with the local dentists and the experience it provides.

“It has been nice to work with them, and they are interested in what we are doing and happy that we can expand their services,” she said. “Some of them have been able to use our equipment and have really appreciated it. It expands our horizons to work with other cultures and learn their practices and share knowledge.”

McPherson said her best experience is being able to help those in need.

“When you are away from your family, no matter how long, it’s always difficult,” she said. “But when you have made an impact on people in an underserved population, it really makes that time apart worth it. A lot of us in the health career field have typically chosen it to help those in need. That’s how our team has approached this — if we have to be away from our families and our unit, then we are going to work our hardest to help as many people as possible.”