Chilean Air Force Deploys a Medical Operation to Easter Island

Chilean Air Force Deploys a Medical Operation to Easter Island

By Dialogo
September 17, 2015

On January 19, 1951, a PBY-5 amphibious plane from the Chilean Air Force (FACh, for its Spanish acronym) made the first flight connecting Chile to its island territory, Easter Island. The island's natives, who call their home "Rapa Nui," christened as "Manatura" or "Good-luck Bird" the famous plane - remembered today for one of the most important milestones in Chilean aeronautics.

Echoing that feat, a Boeing 767-300ER from the FACh Second Air Brigade’s 10th Aviation Group recently delivered medical treatment and supplies to the island's residents from the mainland 3,700 kilometers away.

The plane, carrying out the 20th Medical-Cultural Operation on Easter Island from August 22-29, delivered eight tons of cargo, including pharmaceuticals, raw materials, medical equipment, and food, in addition to 141 service members -- among them physicians, dentists, and logistics and support personnel. Their mission, conducted annually since 1995, was to assist the island’s 5,761 Rapa Nui natives by providing dental care and medical treatments for all diseases that cannot be treated at the local Hanga Roa Hospital.

“[The operation] has taken on a permanent role in assisting the community, providing solutions and activities to effectively meet the needs of our society,” said General Jorge Robles Mella, FACh Commander in Chief.

A joyful reception

Local residents joyfully greeted the flight’s arrival at the Mataveri airport and handed FACh service members – medical professionals who are known as “taotes” in the Rapa Nui language – leis made from native flowers as a token of their gratitude.

“This type of operation creates great expectations, because they help and work together to improve the quality of life for the local population, as well as reducing the number of people on waiting lists during the year due to a lack of specialists,” said Juan Pakomio, Easter Island’s hospital director.

That cooperation between FACh healthcare professionals and physicians from the Hanga Roa Hospital and the Ministry of Health through the Eastern Metropolitan Health Service led to 4,048 medical treatments, including 1,887 consultations, 2,086 examinations or procedures, and 75 surgeries. The medical consults focused on urology, gastroenterology, neurology, dermatology, nephrology, ophthalmology, otorhinolaryngology, cardiology, internal medicine, pediatrics, bronchopulmonary check-ups, and dentistry.

A variety of procedures and surgeries

Additionally, medical personnel also conducted echocardiograms, endoscopies, colonoscopies, electroencephalograms, endometries, and echograms, all using instruments transported to the island by the FACh from the Clinical Hospital in Santiago. They also conducted an array of surgeries, including ones focusing on the gallbladder, colon, varicose veins, and hemorrhoids, as well as urological operations.

“The Chilean Air Force has given us a great opportunity, because this gives us access to modern medical equipment,” said patient Laura Ponte, who received a mammogram and a thyroid echogram. “There are no machines for these tests on the island.”

The Military incorporated mammogram specialists into the medical operation in 2004, and that year doctors detected early-stage breast cancer in a patient who was quickly treated, “allowing her to survive for 10 years, so far,” said Dr. Cristián Pérez, a FACh radiologist specializing in mammograms.

“Every year, they wait for us to perform these tests.”

Meanwhile, Military dentists performed treatments at the facilities of the island’s Marine garrison, in addition to lecturing young students on oral health and hygiene.

Dental patients were grateful for the checkups and treatments.

“This is a tremendous support for the Easter Island residents' healthcare, because we do not always have the monetary resources to travel to the mainland, where most dental facilities are located,” said Paula Pakarati, a patient who received dental treatment from the FACh.

The FACh improves every year

Thanks to the experience service members obtain with each health care mission, the quality of dental and medical services provided to the people of Easter Island improves yearly, according to Air Force Colonel Néstor Ortega, the operation’s medical area chief.

“People keep their appointments, and we were even able to treat people who showed up unexpectedly. It far exceeded our expectations, and we are very happy with the work we performed.”

The operation also had a cultural component through which the FACh reinforced the ties that Chile has had with Rapa Nui for more than 50 years: FACh service members held a bullfight and a bicycle race, which included participation by the Armed Forces. They also held an art project for children and adolescents at the island’s schools that featured Chilean artist Mario Murua. Participants created an eight-meter long mural at the Anakena beach, based on the ancestral bird of the Rapa Nui, the “Manutara.”

Additionally, specialists from the FACh Financial Directorate contributed to Easter Island’s growth and development by advising and training a team responsible for the municipality’s finances.

“[This operation] not only fulfills a state policy to foster cooperation and national cohesion, but it also demonstrates our country’s commitment to all Chileans, especially those who live in remote areas,” said National Defense Minister José Antonio Gómez.