Medical personnel participate in Arctic goodwill deployment

Doctors provide free examinations to 166 patients in Arctic towns

Posted: Tuesday, September 29, 2009

An army of medical personnel - both for people and pets - trooped out to Alaska's North Slope and Northwest Arctic for about 20 days last month as part of the Coast Guard's Arctic Crossroads 2009.

Flying in from as far away as Tennessee and Georgia, 13 medical personnel, three doctors, a dentist, an optometrist, four veterinarians and four medical assistants visited 16 villages, including Barrow, Little Diomede in the west and the communities surrounding Nome. Medical doctors examined 166 patients, the optometrist examined 149 patients and the dentist treated 14 patients. All the services were offered free of charge.

"We just found that this medical treatment would be a huge benefit to the community and help us learn more about the community at the same time. We grabbed onto that and it worked extremely well," said Coast Guard Cmdr. Michelle Webber, who supervised the deployment.

The Coast Guard doesn't have a large medical staff, so personnel were also drawn from the Air Force and the Army National Guard. About half were deployed from the Lower 48. Water safety teams also came along to give presentations in communities.

While the people seemed grateful for the medical services, the veterinarians were the most popular personnel, treating 1,169 animals.

"People were lining up to see the vets before the doctors," said Coast Guard Petty Officer David Mosley.

Lt. Cmdr. Lauren Davidson, with the U.S. Public Health Service in Maryland, was one of the veterinarians who volunteered to be stationed in Barrow. She went door-to-door in Barrow, Nuiqsut and Kaktovik to offer vaccinations and examinations.

"I always wanted to go to Alaska, and what better way than to help the U.S. Coast Guard and help the country and assist the situation up there," Davidson said. "It highlighted the human-animal bond that's everywhere - everyone has a pet that they want to keep healthy."

Getting dogs and cats vaccinated for rabies was a primary concern for the vets on the North Slope. The town is under quarantine after one rabid fox attacked a dog and another attempted to attack a woman. Now, owners transporting dogs out of the area must have a letter from a veterinarian to prove that the animal has had its rabies shot. Making matters more complicated, there is no permanent veterinarian on staff at the Barrow clinic.

For the most part, the medical personnel were based in Nome and Barrow and made day trips out to the villages, setting up at local clinics and consulting with residents about whatever ailed them. In the case of one patient in Little Diomede, that meant emergency intervention and a medevac to a hospital.

Mosley said that the purpose of the deployment was to foster good will between them and the Arctic residents, who will probably be seeing a lot more of the Coast Guard in years to come.

"With the receding of ice up there, the Coast Guard is more and more focused on what our capabilities are in the water in the Arctic. We have to look at what's available - how can we meet demands now if need be, and what do we need to look for," Mosley said.

While the medical staff and water safety teams were working with residents, the Coast Guard was testing four types of small boats - a special purpose craft-shallow water boat, a 25-foot response boat, an 18-foot Sea Wolf kite boat and a 24-foot response boat - to see how they would react in Arctic ocean conditions. In addition to testing, the military personnel consulted with village residents about the region.

"You take the North Slope region itself, locals have been living in this environment for a very, very long time. Talking with them about what to expect can be invaluable," said Mosley, who mentioned that last spring, when airplanes were arriving on the North Slope, one whaling captain they had spoken with told them where open water was by looking at the color in the sky.

The goodwill deployment and the associated testing is part of the Coast Guard's investigation into how it will expand Arctic operations in the years to come. Some scenarios they are considering include how they will be able to respond to a cruise ship sinking in Arctic waters or oil spills.

The deployment required a massive amount of coordination over six months to pull off, and the support of up to 90 personnel. But Mosley said that it was so successful they are considering doing something similar next summer, possibly based out of Kotzebue.

"We're happy to reach out and serve people that support us in any way that we can," Mosley said.

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