Soldiers from the South Dakota Army National Guard (SDARNG) traveled to the South American country of Suriname to provide medical and dental services to the local population of Albina, April 10-12. The mission was part of a medical/dental readiness education and training exercise to assist with ongoing efforts of improving systemic and oral health in the region.
Soldiers from SDARNG’s Medical Command and 730th Area Support Medical Company (ASMC) worked alongside Suriname Defense Force (SDF) medics, a local doctor, and pharmacy personnel to provide services to residents of the rural community. The mission was conducted as part of the Suriname and South Dakota State Partnership Program, which seeks to strengthen ties through engagement activities and share experiences and best practices through a variety of military training exchanges.
“A significant need for rural dental care, as well as medical care, was identified as part of an ongoing exchange with South Dakota’s partner country,” said U.S. Army Major Ronovan Ottenbacher, a field surgeon in the 730th ASMC and provider in Medical Command. “This was a first-ever ‘ground-up’ mission for the SDARNG medical-dental community in Suriname.”
Two medical providers, two medics, three dentists, and two dental technicians made up the SDARNG team. Once the team arrived to Suriname’s capital city of Paramaribo, they had only one day to plan and prepare equipment and supplies for the trip to Albina, about 90 miles away.
“This mission was put together in a hurry,” said U.S. Army Colonel Murray Thompson, a dentist and officer in charge of SDARNG team. “In fact, we were not exactly sure of which equipment we had available […]. We had to find and borrow local dental instruments, supplies and disposable gloves. Basically, everything we were doing had never been done before in that area.”
Each day, said Maj. Ottenbacher, the SDARNG team linked up with its Surinamese counterpart at the local military base then traveled together to a newly constructed medical facility in Albina, a town of about 5,000 people.
“The local military would assist in organizing the patients and sorting those who needed dental vs. medical care,” said Maj. Ottenbacher. “There were lines waiting for the team every morning. Organization was a critically necessary step.”
Over the three days, the team saw nearly 300 patients for a variety of medical needs — from minor body aches and pains to more severe cases.
“One of the last and strangest patients I saw was a middle aged gentleman who came with an extremely swollen leg,” said Maj. Ottenbacher. “The patient had a large ulcer on his leg related to the swelling and was infested with [parasites]. These were removed and then the wound bandaged by the team’s medic. The patient had future surgical care arranged via the Surinamese team.”
Maj. Ottenbacher said the vast majority of patients came for simple complaints such as head to toe body pain for many years. Many parents also requested anti-parasite/de-worming medication for their children. Common viral illnesses and skin conditions were also some of the most frequent concerns.
The main emphasis for medical care, however, was oral health. The dental team performed nearly 400 adult and pediatric tooth extractions.
“The dental team undoubtedly saw a tremendous dental need,” said Col. Thompson. “Like the rural population of South Dakota, Suriname also struggles with accessing a dental provider, ability to pay for treatment, and challenges in traveling long distances for dental care.”
In addition to medical and dental care, the mission created a collaborative multinational team.
A key member of the South Dakota-Suriname team was Dr. Paul Aikman, medical director of the Paramaribo Military Hospital and lead Surinamese doctor on site, as required by their Ministry of Health.
“I think [the mission] went very well — the medical and dental care were very helpful,” said Aikman. “There was a need for the care, because in the case of dentistry there isn’t much availability because of the local conditions with no dentist on location.”
Overall, the mission was an experience that all members of the team, and likely the hundreds of people who were helped, will not soon forget, Maj. Ottenbacher and Col. Thompson said.