Military medical professionals team-up, provide care to 1,800 in remote Djibouti

OBOCK, Djibouti -- The town of Obock recently played host to an team of U.S. and local dental, optometry, and wellness professionals attached to Camp Lemonnier who combined their skills to provide treatment for Afar tribesmen residing in the Obock Prefecture.

This team was part of the Combined Joint Task Force - Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) Medical Capacity Program (MEDCAP) and their first order of business was to direct Obock patients to the right place at the right time.

"We set-up an initial triage station for a first look and then it was a matter of sending them to the right specialists," said U.S. Army Maj. Brian Wehrer, senior medical officer for the 402nd Civil Affairs Battalion.

According to U.S. Army Capt. Jose Rivera, MEDCAP mission commander, services provided also included acute care treatment and preventative care measures. "When people walked in, we quickly determined what their needs were so we could either address immediate issues, or help them prevent future problems," said Rivera.

The team offered several type of medical care not normally available to the tribesmen.

"The U.S. Soldiers are helping the Ministry of Health and the local clinic make this all possible, said Dr. Saber Ali Ahmed, Obock Clinic chief of medicine. "There are about 18,000 people in the region and we had about 1,800 show-up for treatment, so this is something the people are eager about."

According to Ahmed, most of the patients were treated for general health issues and preventative care. "Many of these people cannot afford the long and expensive trip to Djibouti City so this event is very beneficial to them, he explained. "The people of Obock are very appreciative and hope to do something like this again in the future."

The critical need for services in Obock Prefecture stems from its remote and isolated location, said local official Ali Hamid Hassan, Obock Regional Council President. "It is not always practical or affordable for people to make the long and expensive trip to Djibouti City for this kind of care. So, the people are very appreciative of these teams assembling here today," he said.

One immediate impact of the mission was correcting patient's vision, said U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Peter Clark, optometry technician. "I pre-screen patients by performing a preliminary examination to help determine where the optometrist should start in terms of the vision correction the patient will likely need," said Clark. "We're only here a couple days so we want to make the best use of our time."

The wellness clinic team provided basic medical assessments to the patients including blood pressure, heart rate and respiratory measurement, and basic evaluation of focused medical complaints, said U.S. Navy Lt. Travis Harrell, team physician. "We then determine what we can do for them and hopefully help with problems through prescription medication and other treatment," he said.

U.S. Army Capt. and physician Vincent Fry said, "The conditions are a little tough here compared to what we might be used to, but it's not effecting the quality of care and the local providers are right here making sure we have what we need."

U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Leah Potter explained that dental work isn't something people necessarily look forward to, but is critical part of overall health and well-being. "Despite the less-than-enjoyable experience of sitting in the dentist's chair, the results are always appreciated and we get many hugs and thanks," said Potter, adding that the dental teams saw about 50 people each day during the two-day mission.

U.S. Air Force Col. Michael Fulton said that the unexpected arrival of Afar interpreters was extremely helpful. "Aside from simply helping us communicate specific instructions, they helped us really connect and offer comfort," he said. "Our interpreters helped explain things and even pitched in with some help with basic procedures and other kinds of assistance."

This mission was a great success and a model of how to reach those in need, according to Ambassador Swan. "What we saw here today is the perfect example of how great things can happen when so many people are all willing to plan and work closely together."

U.S. Ambassador to Djibouti James Swan praised the efforts of many behind-the-scenes workers who said made the medical professionals' jobs easier. "Other key players included local police, the Red Crescent and many volunteers, including the Djiboutian military who delivered supplies and water," he said.