June 27th, 2007 06:20 EST
Rural Salvadorans Receive Free Medical Care from U.S. Military
Izalco, El Salvador " Evelyn has spent most of her two and a half years of life suffering from severe allergic eczema, a condition that would be treated within a matter of weeks in the developed world. She has been in and out of rural Salvadoran hospitals for two years, but the medications and therapy available locally have not been able to help her, and her condition has progressed to the point that an untrained eye might mistake her for a severe burn victim.
Dr. Richard Hendershot, a major in the Colorado Air National Guard, has anything but an untrained eye. He specializes in pediatric allergies at the National Jewish Medical and Research Center in Denver. Hendershot saw Evelyn June 11, on his first day in El Salvador as part of a 10-day U.S. military medical readiness training exercise. He immediately diagnosed her condition and asked that she return every few days for follow-up treatments during his stay in the country.
Hendershot told USINFO June 21 that his experience in El Salvador has allowed him to see medical situations he never would encounter in his U.S. practice. You see disease that you read about, that has progressed a lot further than it would have in the United States today, " he said. Even if you see these same disease processes, you`re never going to see them as far progressed as this. It`s more something people take pictures of and then they publish them in textbooks. "
Colonel John Torres, the leader of the medical team, said this, in part, was the purpose of the exercise. The idea was first and foremost to provide humanitarian assistance, but, as an added benefit, to expose doctors to medical conditions in the developing world. The U.S. military might be called on at any time to respond to a natural disaster or emergency in the developing world, and by participating in exercises like this, the doctors of the National Guard learn about the types of medical situations they might face, Torres said.
Hendershot said the most common problems the doctors saw were related to malnutrition and parasites due to impure water and improperly cooked food, but they also dealt with viruses, respiratory infections, gastrointestinal problems, tumors, skin cancer and heart disease. A group of dentists also performed tooth extractions.
In all, the team included 25 doctors, nurses and medical technicians who worked at three locations around Izalco. They came armed with cases of antibiotics, anti-parasitics, vitamins and women`s health medications. In 10 days, they saw more than 13,000 patients, a full 30 percent more than they expected.
Hendershot said the program most likely drew such a large crowd because it promised free medical care and free medications.
There are doctors available in Izalco, he said, but there`s a common fear, in talking to some of the locals, that it`s going to cost too much. They can`t afford it. They`re a long ways away. They can`t afford the medications. And so there`s a real fear of seeing doctors. "
Consequently, many people arrive at the U.S. clinics with medical conditions that have gone untreated for years. Hendershot saw a case of skin cancer left to run its course for 12 years. He saw a baby with a retinal tumor so large it was causing the child`s eye to bulge out. The families did not feel they had the resources to deal with the problem, but when a free clinic became available, they flocked to it.
Hendershot said there were local physicians working alongside him at the clinic who helped alert them to serious cases in need of further attention. In these instances, the local physicians could help the patients understand and navigate the Salvadoran medical system, and even get attention in the specialized hospitals in the capital if necessary. Once people came to the clinic and acknowledged their medical problems, Hendershot said, he could help them overcome the fear of dealing with the local medical system.
In addition to the doctors, dozens of U.S. Army soldiers participated in the exercise, working as clowns, giving haircuts, playing educational games with the children and providing public health training to patients waiting to see the doctors.
Izalco`s mayor, Carlos Alexis Portillo, called the exercise a sign of friendship, love and caring. "
El Salvador is full of rich and beautiful landscapes, but also many needs, " he said, needs that require us to seek solutions through international cooperation. "
As for Evelyn, Hendershot ordered an extra supply of medication for her from the United States. He also trained her parents and the local physicians in the most effective methods of therapy. A local physician who has followed Evelyn`s case since her condition first developed said she made more progress in a week under Hendershot`s care than she had in the past two years. Some of the doctors even noticed her laughing and smiling for the first time in a long while.
For more information on U.S. programs, see Humanitarian Assistance and Refugees and Health.
(USINFO is produced by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)