Wright-Patt medics perform plastic surgery in Colombia

  • Published
  • By Mike Frangipane
  • 88th Air Base Wing Public Affairs
Two medical personnel from the 88th Medical Group at Wright-Patterson Medical Center here, participated in the 2009 U.S. Southern Command's Medical Readiness Training Exercise, called MEDRETE.

Dr. (Maj.) Matthew Talarczyk and Staff Sgt. Karla Ramos were part of the Air Force's team of physicians and medical technicians sent to Cartagena, Colombia. The MEDRETE team brought surgical skills to children and residents in that South American community. 

The goal of the MEDRETE program is to bring humanitarian assistance and free medical care to various nations, while providing an unparalleled training opportunity for U.S. medical professionals. These training exercises are based on the principle of helping others while practicing important military skills in partnership with medical personnel of the host nation. The mission to Cartagena was specifically a plastic surgery mission bringing reconstructive surgery to indigent Colombian patients.

The team dealt primarily with the correction of facial maladies. Conditions encountered included nasolabial fistula or a hole between the nose and upper lip, cleft lip and cleft palate. In Colombian culture these and other conditions often result in the individual being shunned or ridiculed. The surgeons, for that reason, were able to do more than improve the physical health of their patients. They also gave their patients the gift of acceptance within their communities.

A real treat for the youngsters who underwent surgery by the MEDRETE team was the collection of stuffed animals donated by our local MOMs of Oakwood volunteer organization.

"Within a week of the word getting out, bunches of stuffed animals started appearing on my front porch daily," said Talarczyk. The collection of fuzzy gifts for the children was packed in three large vacuum sealed plastic bags to condense the package size. Talarczyk tells of the surprise he got when the seal for one of the bags broke in transit and stuffed animals started flying out at him.

This year's MEDRETE team was headed up by Dr. (Col.) Charles Hardin of the 59th Medical Wing, Lackland AFB, TX. Harden a veteran of 20 MEDRETE missions brought a wealth of experience to the team.

"He was just so experienced," said Talarczyk. "When we had an opportunity to work with him on a case, we would learn volumes."

This was Talarczyk's third and Ramos' first MEDRETE mission.

In addition to Dr. Hardin and the two Wright-Patterson participants, the group also included two other physicians and a surgical technician from 59th Medical Wing, as well as one physician from 79th Medical Group at Andrews AFB, MD.

The U.S. team had several team members who could not get country clearance in time for the mission and as a result they were unable to take any nursing staff with them. The team was also short one operative technician. As a result, the Colombian nurses took up the slack, assisting in the preoperative area, the operating room, and recovery room. The team was very impressed with the support they received.

"The Colombian staff was as important to the mission as our involvement," said Talarczyk. "They helped organize the patients. They assisted in preoperative evaluation, organized operating schedules, and coordinated the workload with the nursing staff," he said.

The team was not the only US humanitarian mission in Colombia. The MEDRETE mission also worked in coordination with the Army Corps of Engineers' "Beyond the Horizon" initiative which was engaged in building a new school. The undertaking was part of the Omayra Sanchez engineering project, named for the 13-year old female victim of the Nevado del Ruiz volcano that erupted on 1985 in Armero, Colombia.

The USSOUTHCOM MEDRETE Columbia team centered its operations at the Simon Bolivar Naval Medical Center in Cartagena. With the assistance of the Colombian Navy's only plastic surgeon, Dr. (Maj.) Mauricio Bolivar, and utilizing a single operating room with very modern equipment and two operating stations, the surgeons were able to have two surgical teams operating simultaneously. This allowed US and host nation surgeons to talk, train, and assist one another during the procedures and to mutually share their techniques.

During the 17 days they were in Colombia, the team saw more than 100 patients and performed a total of 74 surgical procedures, among them 18 cleft lip revisions, 7 cleft palate repairs, 12 cleft palate revisions, 14 cleft rinoplasties, and 11 nasolabial fistula repairs.

One case stood out for Talarczyk and Ramos. It was that of a 14-year-old male who needed corrective surgery but was showing symptoms of a respiratory infection which would have prohibited it.

"We waited throughout the term of our stay, even granting an additional day for the patient to recover," said Talarczyk. "On the last day of our stay, his surgery was successfully completed and he is recovering well."

Talarczyk said the MEDRETE experience represented a great opportunity to work with Colombian physicians and medical providers, to learn from them their insights and skills and to share with them his own. For him it was also personally important to provide care to those who would not otherwise have had access to it.

U.S. Southern Command sponsors approximately 70 MEDRETEs per year. MEDRETE is a tremendous opportunity to demonstrate SOUTHCOM's cooperation with partner nations and its desire to assist those nations in providing health care delivery to their population. The staff here at Wright-Patterson Medical Center is enthusiastic to support that goal.