Santiago de Veraguas, Panama –
Step into the realm of humanitarian training missions, where ophthalmology emerges as a beacon of hope in underserved areas. In July 2023, a team of 32 members from the Air Force, Army, and Navy embarked on an Ophthalmology Medical Readiness Training Exercise, or MEDRETE, to Regional Hospital Dr. Luis "Chicho" Fabrega in Santiago de Veraguas, Panama.
The annual joint service exercise was led by U.S. Southern Command, and aimed to enhance the skills and operational readiness of team members by immersing them in a range of prevalent chronic eye conditions in the region.
Over three weeks, the team conducted rapid preliminary screenings for 300 patients within just three days. Following this, they accomplished a remarkable total of 291 surgeries over the subsequent eight days, leaving an impact through nearly 750 clinic appointments.
Amidst the mission's logistics, Master Sgt. Kim Piad, the flight chief at the 59th Medical Wing Ophthalmology Clinic and the Non-Commissioned Officer in Charge of PANAMAX Alpha 2023, highlighted the importance of flexibility and innovation. Piad noted the dynamic nature of these surgeries, patient care, and resource management that required adaptation from their accustomed practices.
"This approach is crucial," he explained, "as it pairs experienced personnel with those who have less experience, ensuring mission success without compromise. Our staff members undergo comprehensive training as each surgery benefits from the oversight of field experts, offering junior surgeons and technicians a unique chance to elevate their medical expertise."
In missions like PANAMAX Alpha 2023, selecting the right personnel becomes vital, ensuring optimal outcomes within tight schedules and limited resources. U.S. Army Col. Casey Carlton, an ophthalmologist assigned to Brooke Army Medical Center, San Antonio, Texas, and officer in charge of the mission, marveled at the collaboration across nations and specialties.
"Through my years of service, I've witnessed service members worldwide unite for a shared goal," Carlton stated. "Despite starting as strangers, we evolve into a cohesive team, each contributing where needed to secure mission success."
Operating under demanding conditions, collaborating internationally, and performing intricate surgeries with constrained resources provide a unique learning opportunity. Carlton emphasized how this environment sharpens skills in procedures like MSICS and pterygium excisions while ensuring top-tier patient care throughout.
"Our team faced challenging cases, yet we pooled our skills to develop individualized approaches for each patient," Carlton explained. "The outcomes were remarkable: many patients with limited vision due to cataracts left with significantly improved sight."
Piad echoed this sentiment, emphasizing the benefits of learning from more experienced peers and knowing when to seek assistance. He expressed his deep passion for his role and the satisfaction derived from training, leading, and mentoring junior technicians while creating a global impact.
"I am exceptionally proud of this team's dedication to our shared goal, despite the long days," Piad expressed. "The most gratifying aspect of these missions and performing numerous surgeries is knowing we're transforming lives, one eye at a time — quite literally, and that's truly amazing."