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Multinational Medical Team Helps Thousands in Cambodia

29 June 2014

From Lt. Cmdr. Kim E. Dixon

Medical and dental practitioners from seven countries provided clinical services to more than 4,000 Cambodians over six days as part of the Pacific Partnership 2014 engagement here, concluding June 27.

SIHANOUKVILLE, Cambodia - Medical and dental practitioners from seven countries provided clinical services to more than 4,000 Cambodians over six days as part of the Pacific Partnership 2014 engagement here, concluding June 27.

Approximately 116 doctors, nurses, dentists, optometrists, pharmacists, and medical assistants from the U.S., Japan, Australia, Republic of Korea, Chile, and Malaysia worked with counterparts from the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF), holding two three-day clinics at sites in Takeo and Sikanoukville.

The medical practitioners worked in integrated teams, with each team consisting of at least one Pacific Partnership member nation and an RCAF member, providing basic medical care for adults and children, eyeglasses, dental extractions, nutrition advice, and prescription medications. While having the effect of providing practical services to the people of the area, the greater Pacific Partnership mission was key behind the personnel manning.

“We have focused on working with the RCAF physicians and nurses, so we created teams where we are paired with them,” said U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Veronica Bigornia, a family practice physician and officer in charge of the Sihanoukville site. “I know this has prepared us for future disaster recovery missions in that we’ve seen the country, seen the resources available, seen the public, and worked directly with the doctors. If we have to come back for a real world disaster, we’ve already established those relationships.”

The multinational composition of the Pacific Partnership teams is another key to mission success.

“The possibility that you can have many kinds of navies working together – navies that all have different resources, different people, different ideas – and put them working together is the biggest success of Pacific Partnership,” said Chilean navy physician Lt. Luca Giuliano. “In the future, if we have a disaster, it will be very easy if you put us back together. It may not be the same doctors, but if you put our nations back together, we will know how to work together; how to speak to each other.”

Teaming up the medical practitioners had a secondary effect to contribute to the long-term health of the local Cambodian people, even as it allowed the Pacific Partnership team to recognize, and work to overcome, the limitations associated with the level of care they were able to provide in this setting.

“This has helped the Cambodian people have a positive image for the RCAF because they see the doctors want to take care of them,” said Bigornia. “It also allows the people to talk to the doctors to find out what the local resources are and get plugged into a provider. It makes us feel like we’re not just leaving behind problems we are unable to address here.”

While the medical practitioners were able to provide some measure of relief for acute or chronic medical issues, the results may not be seen the same day of the appointment as medications can take time to be effective. There were two practice areas that had the ability to realize near-immediate success –optometry and dentistry.

In the optometry clinic, the patients were given eye exams and refractive screenings for an eyeglass prescription. Pacific Partnership 2014 brought 4,000 pairs of eyeglasses, both near and far vision, for distribution. Every patient also receives a pair of sunglasses because living so close to the equator can cause problems. The ability to address directly patients’ complaints is rewarding for practitioners.

“I love doing this,” said U.S. Navy Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Kirk Glenn. “You can tell you made a difference because you give them the glasses, and they see clear for the first time in their life. They give you a hug, they bless you, the monks bless you.”

The dental clinic was able to provide relief from cavities through dental extractions. Japanese, U.S., and Cambodian dentists may have only worked together for six days, but the effects will be more long-lasting for future teamwork.

“For me, the next time I go to one of our ships, I can take what I learned from these activities and teach it to my counterparts,” said Japan Self-Defense Force dentist Maj. Kensaku Umetani.

An additional service the Pacific Partnership team was also able to provide was nutrition education, a key component for helping to manage many diseases or conditions that the local Cambodians may not be able to afford to manage through medication.

“Medication can often be not practical or attainable here, so the patients are looking for food alternatives in order to maintain their health status,” said U.S. Navy nutritionist Lt.j.g. Danielle Sterner. “I had a referral from the doctors for a diabetes patient. I was able to show her the effect of carbohydrates on her disease. My biggest challenge, though, is just talking about what is realistic given their resources and their cultural beliefs.”

As Pacific Partnership is about learning to work out the challenges before disaster strikes, the medical and dental engagements were deemed successful by the medical practitioners as the team was able to learn from any challenges presented in serving nearly 1,000 patients a day in a relatively austere environment.

“This was a very enjoyable working environment and a great opportunity where I could learn a lot from the doctors from other countries,” said RCAF general physician Lt. Col. Bora Bong. “I really admire that this operation went very well.”

Pacific Partnership is in its ninth iteration and is the largest annual multilateral humanitarian assistance and disaster relief preparedness mission conducted in the Asia-Pacific region.

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