Cambodia Mission Is Sobering, Rewarding
US Marine Corps
By Sgt. Ethan E. Rocke, MCB Camp Butler
KAMPONG SOM PROVINCE, Cambodia (Aug. 31, 2007) — Itâ€™s 9 a.m. and the daily crowd of patients is lined up outside the makeshift medical clinic at the Maâ€™Ahad El-Muhajirin Islamic Center in southern Cambodia. They peer inside the building, watching a Navy medical team at work.
As medical officer, Lt. Jonathan Endres sees his fifth patient of the day, his face is bright and his spirits high. He knows exactly how to help 9-year-old Mutiah Zaynuttin. The rash on her scalp is textbook, and she has a mild cold. Endres writes her prescription, smiles and sends her next door to another dim, shabby room that serves as the teamâ€™s pharmacy.
Zaynuttin is one of the approximately 500 residents of the center, located in the midst of Kampong Som Provinceâ€™s remote farmland. She is the 98th patient Endres and his team of corpsmen from the Okinawa-based Marine Wing Support Squadron 172 have seen since they began a medical civil assistance project here two and a half days earlier. She is one of the 96 whose ailments the â€œdocsâ€ have been able to effectively treat, and she is one of the patients that leaves Endres smiling.
But as Endres and his docs measure their worth with the care and comfort they can provide the sick, and the other patients â€“ those few whose serious illnesses they canâ€™t treat in this environment â€“ weigh on their minds.
Their humanitarian mission is a familiar one that Okinawa service members carry out in countries all over the Pacific.
â€œItâ€™s very challenging,â€ said Endres, who is deployed on his first medical civil assistance project. â€œYou do what you can and want to help as many people as you can, and we are able to treat the majority. There are only a few that we got stuck on, and thatâ€™s frustrating.â€
By the projectâ€™s third day, there were two patients Endres could not help. One, he suspects has hepatitis and another appears to be in the beginning stages of tuberculosis.
Many patients U.S. teams see on humanitarian assistance missions have never seen a doctor. And while they are the minority, cases that exceed a deployed teamâ€™s capabilities are a disheartening reality for American doctors accustomed to Western health care standards.
The teamâ€™s enlisted leader Chief Petty Officer Joe Palmares, a 20-year Navy veteran who planned and coordinated the Cambodia medical project, has been faced with that reality several times; the Cambodia mission marks the ninth medical civil assistance project he has been involved with while stationed on Okinawa.
â€œThere are times that you really wish you could provide more,â€ he said. â€œEvery time we do this, you can only do so much, so we do the best we can and hope.â€
Their best means treating patients every day from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and also providing preventive medicine training that covers topics such as hygiene and preventing heat casualties.
Most patients have several diagnoses many of which are the result of poor living conditions. Infections and parasites are among the most common problems in the small Cambodian community.
The medical team hopes to lengthen its impact beyond the two weeks they are on the ground by showing the residents how to better protect against disease and infection, a responsibility that falls to preventive medicine technician Petty Officer 1st Class Kelly R. Wallen, who is also deployed on his first civil assistance mission.
â€œThis can be an emotionally draining experience,â€ he said. â€œItâ€™s backbreaking work at times, but I actually look forward to getting up in the morning, knowing itâ€™s going to be hard, because I know Iâ€™m going to help people.â€
Wallen and his colleagues share a driving sense of compassion and commitment that is a constant reminder to them that, while they cannot help everyone, there is something very special about helping those they can.
â€œWe come out here and we care,â€ said Palmares. â€œThatâ€™s our mission, and we do it well. As Americans, we are very blessed. Weâ€™re such a strong country, and thatâ€™s why we provide this humanitarian relief, because we can and because we should. You canâ€™t provide everything, but to touch somebodyâ€™s life, thatâ€™s special. They will cherish this; they will remember this.â€
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