A medical miracle.
Mix remote Alaskan communities with medical needs greater than the resources usually available, and a military in need of training in harsh and remote environments, and what do you get?
For several weeks each year, a medical, logistic and readiness training exercise takes place in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region of western Alaska. The joint medical military operation involves both active and reserve components of the Marines, Navy, Air Force and Army, as well as the National Guard.
This year, nearly 200 medical personnel spent two weeks administering free immunizations, school physicals, dental care, well-baby clinics, vision checks, and emergency services to the citizens of Bethel and 10 surrounding villages. The medical teams worked in conjunction with the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation and Public Health Service to augment medical care already available. Under normal circumstances, villagers visit clinics, staffed by health aides.
"We serve 24,000 people out on the Delta and about 20,000 are in reach of getting to Arctic Care in one means or another," said Dr. Joseph Klejka, medical director of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation. "That is what we really try for - to blanket the Delta. We have a good medical system in place. But we just don't have all the resources we would like to have."
After an initial two-year operation in the Kotzebue region of Northwest Alaska, Arctic Care has provided services to the Delta for last two years. Formally invited into the villages by the tribal governments, the armed forces medical personnel during this year's exercise dealt with gunshots wounds, children going into respiratory distress, seizures, heart attacks, acute fractures and drug overdoses.
"The types of diseases we see here are certainly different than the Lower 48: the severe hypothermia, the extreme amount of RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) and the TB incidences," said Mary Ann Schaffer, patient care service administrator of the health corporation.
Because of poor sanitary conditions, inadequate water and sewer systems, changes in diet, and home environments, the rate of dental decay in the villages is 3 or 4 times the national average. The incidence of early childhood cavities or baby bottle tooth decay is extremely high. Because of that, each military village team - which consisted of a general practitioner or family practice doctor, a nurse practitioner and several nurses - also included two dentists and two dental technicians.
Pairs of optometrists and cardiopulmonary resuscitation specialists traveled from village to village to augment the core teams. Additional roving medics included a physical therapist and a women's health care specialist. A drug demand-reduction team also offered education to youths on the dangers of drug use.
A new addition to the military training exercise was the deployment of veterinarians who vaccinated as many dogs as possible against rabies and distemper during their two-week stay in the Delta. The overall health of the villages can be in jeopardy without the vaccinations because rabies is now epizootic in western Alaska.
An additional 150 support troops performed various other services. Four combat engineers were assigned to each village where they built small bridges and handicap access ramps to clinics or public buildings, or performed other light construction projects that were deemed necessary by the village councils.
Pilots, crew chiefs and maintenance technicians provided transportation by plane and helicopter for the troops.
The villages that were selected to participate in Arctic Care '98 are encompassed an area the size of Washington state and include Akiachak, Aniak, Bethel, Chevak, Emmonak, Hooper Bay, Kipnuk, Kasigluk, Mountain Village and Quinhagak.