Team Vance doctor provides Arctic Care to villagers

  • Published
  • By Frank McIntyre
  • Public Affairs
Above and beyond took on a new meaning last month for Maj (Dr.) Martin LaFrance of the 71st Medical Operations Squadron.
Major LaFrance joined more than 150 other medical providers in going above the Arctic Circle and beyond the reach of traditional medical care facilities for Arctic Care 2004, a joint humanitarian mission to deliver medical, dental, optometry and veterinary services to an underserved and remotely located American population who do not have access to commercial alternatives.
The medical team members, some having recently returned from deployment to Iraq, worked in 11 villages for two weeks, providing care to Alaskan Native Americans.
Now in its 10th year, Arctic Care 2004 was lead by the 4th Medical Battalion, 4th Force Service Support Group, Marine Forces Reserve, headquartered in San Diego, Calif. Headquarters for the mission was in Kotzebue, Alaska, a town of 3,000 located 33 miles north of the Arctic Circle.
Though there is a tremendous need for this care in the area, the benefit to the military is twofold: first, personnel feel the gratification of providing services to fellow Americans; and secondly, it's an opportunity to practice moving people and materials in an austere environment, delivering and extracting from remote locations in cold weather. It's also an exercise in logistics and communications working together on joint teams.
"This mission is especially satisfying because we can acquire training while providing needed services to an underserved segment of Americans," Major LaFrance said. "For me, the most rewarding part of Arctic Care was changing the lives of schoolchildren by addressing vision problems that would otherwise seriously hinder their ability to excel."
Outside Kotzebue, teams worked in village clinics that were headed by certified health aid practitioners. CHAPs- have basic medical training, but Arctic Care provided services that the CHAPs cannot.
Major LaFrance, along with seven other optometrits and four optometry technicians, examined eyes for, among other things, glaucoma, cataracts and prescription glasses, which they coordinate the development with the village optometrist in Kotzebue.
"We provided more than $170,000 in eye care services for 11 villages in a 360,000 square mile area. In 10 days I saw 310 patients and covered an area larger than the state of Texas," Major LaFrance said. "That was what impressed me most, the extreme remoteness and size of the area."
In addition to the optometry care provided by Major LaFrance and his team, Arctic Care 2004 could count among their successes: they delivered a baby, provided dental care to an 18-month old child who had an infection as a result of a fall weeks before, and air lifted a patient with severe head injury from a snowmobile accident. They also tended to 1,378 medical patients, 897 dental patients and 1,191 veterinary patients.
The feedback from the clinics has been tremendous. "CHAPs are sending email to us telling us how much they enjoy Arctic Care," commented the exercise Officer in Charge LTC Tom Benedict, US Navy, Surgical Company Alpha, 4th Medical Battalion, 4th FSSG. "There have been no complaints, only that they wish we were staying longer."
"We're so happy to have these people that you sent," commented Lulu Sampson, teacher's aid in the elementary school in Noorvik, AK. "They were really good with the kids, and the kids are happy to see them."
Kiana's high school principal George Brackin echoed the sentiment: "This group is really genuine," he said of the Kiana team. "They are really helping the community. Our clinic is very good, but getting veterinary and dentistry care is hard here. You have to wait a few months or go to Kotzebue, which is very expensive."
Major LaFrance was selected for Arctic Care 2004 by the chief consultant to the USAF Surgeon for optometry.
"It was really an honor. I've been wanting to go on one of the humanitarian trips for quite sometime," Major LaFrance said. "The patients and all the villagers are so appreciative of the services we provide, the experience is very rewarding."
"Major LaFrance was ecstatic about this opportunity. He's talked about this trip for weeks prior to his departure and after his return," said Lt Col Janice Wallace, 71st MOS commander. "This is one of the unique experiences the military offers--it allows our members the chance to make a difference."
Next time you hear that doctors don't make house calls, remember Major LaFrance and the 18 hours he spent just getting from Enid, Okla. to Kotzebue just to get ready for the "house calls."
(Lt jg Kris Garland, Naval Reserve Navy Office of Information and Public Affairs Officer for Arctic Care 2004 contributed to this article)