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MacDill Reservists provide medical care during Arctic Care 2018

United States Coast Guard Heath Service Technician Third Class Annice Hand (front), checks the amount of oxygen in the blood of a young patient alongside Major Vashun Rodriguez a flight surgeon assigned to the 927th Aeromedical Staging Squadron, MacDill Air Force Base FL, at the Kivalina Clinic, Kivalina, Alaska, April 17, 2018. Military personnel supporting Arctic Care 2018 accomplished critical mission training while providing medical, dental, optometry and veterinary care for underserved villages in the Maniillaq Service Area April 16-24. (U.S. Air Force photo by Maj. Joe Simms)

United States Coast Guard Heath Service Technician Third Class Annice Hand (front), checks the amount of oxygen in the blood of a young patient alongside Major Vashun Rodriguez a flight surgeon assigned to the 927th Aeromedical Staging Squadron, MacDill Air Force Base FL, at the Kivalina Clinic, Kivalina, Alaska, April 17, 2018. Military personnel supporting Arctic Care 2018 accomplished critical mission training while providing medical, dental, optometry and veterinary care for underserved villages in the Maniillaq Service Area April 16-24. (U.S. Air Force photo by Maj. Joe Simms)

Captain Roxanne Buffano, an optometrist assigned to the 927th Aerospace Medicine Squadron, MacDill AFB FL, conducts an eye exam April 17 in support of Arctic Care 2018, at the Kivalina Clinic, Kivalina, Alaska. Arctic Care 2018 is an Innovative Readiness Training exercise comprised of a joint and multi-national force providing medical, dental, optometry and veterinary care for underserved villages in the Maniillaq Service Area April 16-24. (U.S. Air Force photo by Maj. Joe Simms)

Captain Roxanne Buffano, an optometrist assigned to the 927th Aerospace Medicine Squadron, MacDill AFB FL, conducts an eye exam April 17 in support of Arctic Care 2018, at the Kivalina Clinic, Kivalina, Alaska. Arctic Care 2018 is an Innovative Readiness Training exercise comprised of a joint and multi-national force providing medical, dental, optometry and veterinary care for underserved villages in the Maniillaq Service Area April 16-24. (U.S. Air Force photo by Maj. Joe Simms)

Kotzebue, Alaska -- Two Reserve Citizen Airmen assigned to the 927th Air Refueling Wing, MacDill Air Force Base Florida, are part of a joint and multinational contingent currently supporting, Arctic Care 2018, an Innovative Readiness Exercise based out of Kotzebue, Alaska.

Maj. Vashun Rodriguez, a flight surgeon assigned to the 927th Aeromedical Staging Squadron, and Capt. Roxanne Buffano, an optometrist assigned to the 927th Aerospace Medicine Squadron, are providing medical and vision care for residents of Northwest Alaska through April 24.

Kotzebue is one of 12 villages in the Maniilaq Service Area receiving care through the efforts of Arctic Care 2018. To serve the outlying villages, providers such as Rodriguez and Buffano were transported via HH-60 Blackhawk helicopters to communities where many residents have not seen a medical professional in years.

“A few days ago, we flew into a remote village 83 miles above the Arctic Circle named Kivalina, where there typically is no provider throughout the year," said Rodriguez. “If a resident here has an issue, they would need to be flown out to the nearest medical facility where they are evaluated, and if they need further treatment, they would need another trip to Anchorage or a location with a larger medical facility.”

During the exercise, Rodriguez has treated ailments from a sore throat to broken bones, which would have gone untreated due to the lack of available care in the region. According to Paul Hansen, Hospital Administrator for the Manillaq Association, the major factors preventing the citizens of Northwest Alaska from receiving proper care are transportation costs and manpower.

“The Manillaq Association oversees a region that covers an area about the size of Illinois and access to care is a serious issue,” Hansen said. “There are no roads that connect these communities. The primary means of travel between the villages is by light aircraft or boat in the summer months, and snow machine in the winter, so transportation is very expensive which prevents many citizens from getting proper care.”

“The goal is for each community to provide village-based services, but we do not have the manpower,” he continued.

Serving remote areas such as the Northwest Arctic Borough (NAB) is the hallmark of IRT exercises. It not only provides a service to U.S. citizens, it enhances the capabilities of our military medical professionals and provides an opportunity to positively impact someone’s life, according to Buffano.

“Our first day here I had the pleasure of examining a 14-year-old boy who had never worn glasses before and it was incredible to see his eyes light up when I showed him how much better his vision could be with glasses,” said Buffano. “Hopefully these children will remember us and the service we are able to provide for them and their community. Then one day they might be able to follow in our footsteps and provide care to their own villages and the surrounding communities.”

IRT exercises in this region, and specifically Arctic Care, continue to build on the long-standing tradition of U.S. Armed Forces addressing the underserved community health and civic needs of the NAB.

Both Rodriguez and Buffano are veterans of past IRT exercises, and plan to continue serving remote areas of the U.S. whenever the opportunity arises.

“A child cannot develop and reach their full potential if their world is blurry or they have to live with a correctible medical condition,” Buffano said. “This is why I continue to participate in these missions so I can continue to improve the quality of life for others with limited access to care.“

The Northwest Arctic Borough has hosted IRT exercises in the past, most recently in 2015, and plans to continue in the future. Until the day comes that each village is self-sufficient, the villages of Northwest Alaska will continue to rely on aids like Arctic Care exercises and Reserve Citizen Airmen to help fill in the gaps where the Maniilaq Association cannot.