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Operation Arctic Care brings medical support to Kodiak Island

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Celena Wilson
  • Air Force Reserve Command Public Affairs
Despite unfavorable weather, Operation Arctic Care 2008 kicked off March 3 when half of a medical team left Coast Guard Air Station Kodiak, Alaska, for remote villages of Kodiak Island.

"Weather conditions prevented our planned air transportation from reaching Kodiak," said Lt. Col. Jerry Arends, mission director of the operation, from Bolling Air Force Base, Washington, D.C.

"We were fortunate Coast Guard, Alaskan Civil Air Patrol and commercial sources were available," he said. "The participants stayed flexible while we arranged other ways to transport them to the villages."

Operation Arctic Care is an annual Department of Defense Innovative Readiness Training deployment that offers medical care to underserved Native Alaskan villages. It provides joint service experience to active and reserve components of the Air Force, Army, Navy and Marine Corps.

The joint medical teams worked closely with the U.S. Public Health Service and the Kodiak Area Native Association. They chose the villages of Port Lions, Old Harbor, Ouzinkie, Akhiok, Larsen Bay and Karluk because of their remote locations and needs of the residents. The villages ranged in size from 26 to 200 residents.

"The first portion of medical teams were transported to the three largest villages - Port Lions, Old Harbor and Ouzinkie - by chartered fishing boats instead of by the planned rotary-wing air transportation Monday morning," Colonel Arends said. "The next day we got the rest of the teams out, and in the days following we forward deployed elements of each team to the three smaller villages."

Residents have health care but it's limited. Most of the villages have modern but basic medical clinics manned by trained health aides. Physicians and dentists make their rounds during the year.

For more advanced, specialized medical care, villagers must travel by boat or airplane to Kodiak City or Anchorage.

Operation Arctic Care medical care teams supplement the village medical clinics, often conducting home visits and providing health-related educational activities at the village schools and community centers.

While in the villages, Arctic Care teams provided a wide range of health services. These include childhood immunizations, pediatric and adult routine check-ups, acute and preventive dentistry, eye exams and corrective eyewear production and fitting, preventive health briefings, and training in basic life saving and cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

"Our teams saw a total 127 general medicine patients, performed 17 senior health and blood pressure screenings, trained and issued out 42 CPR certifications, taught basic first aid to 55 students, conducted 54 K-12 health and growth development screenings throughout the week," Colonel Arends said.

"We had an absolutely fantastic experience," said Air Force Lt. Col. Jerome J. Hyzy who normally works in the Pentagon.

He served as team leader for the villages of Port Lions and Karluk and partnered with the community leaders and people in Port Lions, a village that was completely destroyed by tsunami 25 years ago. It has since re-located and re-built.

"Many of the elders in this village were a part of that disaster and told us amazing stories about their ordeals," said Colonel Hyzy.

In addition to medical care, a team of Air Force optometrists and technicians conducted 224 eye exams including 114 school age vision screenings. If an eye exam revealed less than perfect vision, prescription glasses were offered to them at no cost. During the week, a two-man optical team produced 232 pairs of glasses for Kodiak Island residents as patient prescriptions arrived from the villages.

The dental teams also kept busy, seeing 188 patients many of whom needed cavity fillings or tooth extractions. All of the patients received an exam, cleaning and tips on dental health.
In addition to the family practitioners, the mission enjoyed the added benefit of a traveling specialty team comprised of a physical therapist, dermatologist and a psychiatrist. The team saw 35 dermatology patients, 26 physical therapy patients and 18 psychiatry patients in three villages and assisted in the clinic in Kodiak City.

Even the villages' pet population received care.

Air Force Maj. Kenneth Burkett from Hickam AFB, Hawaii, said he had "an incredible experience" as team leader for Old Harbor.

"Besides providing healthcare, the team at Old Harbor extended to the community a mentorship/career day at the local school," he said." The team talked about what it is like to serve the world's greatest military and what it took to be a health care professional, officer and enlisted. Not only in the service of their country, but also in service to their communities as many of the team members represented the reserve component of all branches of the military and U.S. Public Health Service."

For those participating in Operation Arctic Care it wasn't just about completing the mission, according to Air Force Lt. Col. Jason Hall of Robins AFB, Ga. As the team leader in Ouzinkie, he said the mission has built esprit de corps between the different service branches.

"I'll go to war with any one of these Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen," he said. "They're a fantastic crew. We have bonded as a family." (Air Force Reserve Command News Service)