Tuesday | April 21, 2015
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Free Care in Ka‘u

Inside the Ocean View Community Center, it was not uncommon for the U.S. Navy dentist to work steadily for hours with little to no breaks, inspecting residents’ mouths and addressing dental problems that, if left untreated, could exacerbate a variety of health conditions, even lead to life-threatening situations. Meanwhile, military optometrists conducted vision screenings and wrote prescriptions for eyeglasses in a nearby computer lab.

Upstairs, other reservists in camouflage provided physical exams, nutrition education, whooping cough and tetanus vaccines, and cardiopulmonary resuscitation training. Some offered comfort, inspiration, career counseling, mental health care and grief counseling when needed. Referrals to local organizations were also given.

Outside, Army vehicle mechanics fixed wheelchair lifts on vehicles, and generators. The center’s flagpole, broken for months, was also repaired and a ceremony held for its rededication.

These services and more were part of Tropic Care 2013, a massive, joint military training exercise that brought free health, vision and dental care to Big Island, Lanai, Molokai and Maui residents. On Hawaii Island, this Innovative Readiness Training Program targeted those living in Ka‘u and Ocean View — rural, largely underserved and geographically isolated communities. It was “a true military and civilian partnership” between the U.S. Department of Defense and the state’s Hawaii District Health Office, supported by Hawaii County, Ka‘u Rural Health Community Association, several other local health-related organizations and numerous volunteers. At least a year in advance, an interested community can fill out an application to participate in the program, as well as submit lists of the type of services desired and what the community is willing to provide, said Cmdr. Lisa Gittleman, Navy Medical Innovative Readiness Training Program manager.

Founded by former President Bill Clinton as part of his “Rebuild America” initiative, the program’s purpose is to improve military readiness when it comes to humanitarian assistance and disaster response while simultaneously providing quality civil engineering and medical services to medically underserved communities nationwide. It also strives to foster goodwill, Gittleman said. The program is in its 19th year and in Hawaii for the second time, she added.

Tropic Care 2013 began June 4 and ended Wednesday. The work here was performed by 122 reservists from multiple components of the Air Force, Army and Navy, as well as the program’s many partners. Together, they helped fill a gap in a district with very limited access to health care and transportation. Daily, roughly 100 residents visited the two Tropic Care sites, located at the community center and Ka‘u High and Pahala Elementary School. As of Wednesday morning, there were 1,020 medical visits, 1,427 dental visits and 2,503 optometry visits, saving participants more than $330,000. Approximately 4,000 pairs of glasses were distributed, Gittleman said. One reason so many took advantage of the dental care and optometry was that these services are not always included in health insurance, she added.

Gittleman and Navy Reserve Lt. Brian Raymond, the Ocean View Community Center site leader, called Tropic Care 2013 “a huge success.” They pointed to the total participation as a strong measure of that success and hoped that residents took away a positive view of the military.

Raymond said the residents served, the program’s partners and the volunteers were incredible and very appreciative. The first patient at the community center showed up at 3 a.m. June 4. Hugs, handshakes and thank-yous were common occurrences. Gratitude was also shown repeatedly with the giving of fresh fruit to the reservists, he added. He recalled how one resident with very serious dental issues later thanked his team for saving her life.

Martha Yamada of the East Hawaii Public Health Nursing Section was impressed by the level of respect for the culture, as well as great compassion and care, the reservists showed during the program. She also recalled several incidents where they helped make a difference, including discovering severe high blood pressure in a couple of patients and immediately getting them to the hospital.

Gittleman and Raymond also thought it was “cool” how well the reservists from different units across the country, who are trained in various areas, came together seamlessly to provide critical services without any major challenges. During the exercise, these military men and women learned a lot from each other, not only new skills, but also about what other branches do, their acronyms and their culture. Friendships were formed, they said.

Several residents interviewed Wednesday morning at the center said they came because it was a more convenient option for addressing their medical needs, as well as helped save them money. They called Tropic Care a blessing and a great cooperative event that provides valuable services. A few spoke about the need for more public awareness about the program beforehand to reach more people and providing better transportation assistance to those with limited mobility, such as housebound residents.

Donald Eissler, a 67-year-old Ocean View resident, got some dental work done and a pair of glasses. He was “very impressed” by the services received. He said Tropic Care was “great” because it helps prepare service members for their next mission and also helps a lot of people, including those who cannot afford the astronomical costs associated with health care or are barely getting by on Social Security.