Rural Morocco Benefits from

Utah Guard 'Traveling Medical Show'


Written by Maj. Chris Patterson

128th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment


Published May 7, 2007


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A little Moroccan Girl smiles as she is entertained while waiting with her mother to be treated by the Utah medical staff.

Photo by Maj. Chris Patterson

A little Moroccan girl smiles as she is entertained while

waiting with her mother to be treated by the Utah medical staff.

TAN TAN, Morocco – More than 40 Utah Guard Airmen and Soldiers, along with U.S. Marines, Navy and Air Force Reserves, joined forces with the Moroccan military during the last two weeks of April 2007 in the southern part of the African nation for a variety of training exercises dubbed Operation African Lion.


While the Moroccan military and U.S. Marines and Sailors conducted bilateral unit-level training and live-fire exercises, medical personnel from the Utah National Guard teamed up with their Moroccan military counterparts to provide primary health care to thousands of patients in rural areas of Morocco inhabited by Berber tribesmen and other nomadic peoples in and around the city of Tan Tan.


The Utah medical staff was led by a psychologist and included three obstetricians, an emergency-room doctor, two dentists, three physician assistants, an optometrist, a nurse practitioner, ICU nurses, a neonatal nurse, dental assistants and medics along with dedicated medical and dental support and linguist and supply personnel.


State Partnership Program


The exercise was sponsored by the State Partnership Program, a State Department initiative where National Guards from individual states cultivate a relationship with another country’s military in order to foster mutual understanding, cooperation and learning.


Since 2003 under this program, the Utah National Guard has worked with military officials from the Kingdom of Morocco, a country in Northwest Africa located directly across the Strait of Gibraltar from Spain. African Lion was part of the continuing military exchange between Utah and Morocco to further business, political, military and medical ties between the two nations.


Over 200 years ago Morocco was the very first nation to recognize the United States as a sovereign nation, and for the last four years Utah Guard members have greatly benefited from training and working in Morocco. Humanitarian exercises such as this one hone Soldiers’ and Airmen’s military and medical skills, as well as provide an opportunity for them to train with the Moroccan military and serve remote populations that do not have access to routine health care.


Taking the Show on the Road


In this fourth consecutive year of providing humanitarian medical support to Morocco, the Utah National Guard provided many types of health care to Moroccans to include dentistry, general practice, OB-GYN, dermatology, pediatrics and optometry, along with a pharmacy to fill many prescription needs. Such services are normally not available in rural Morocco.


In contrast to last year’s medical mission, Utah Guard members went from village to village to provide health care to local Moroccans instead of setting up shop in one location and having patients come to them.


The traveling clinic first treated over 350 patients in the Ben Khalil area, which meant that ten percent of the population was seen at the clinic during this one-day opportunity.  Patients could be seen appearing from the deserted landscape as they walked from apparent unseen tents or homes out in the sandy environs.


Photo by Maj. Chris Patterson

Pfc. Ward prepares a dental patient.

“The Moroccan people were very hospitable, and we were served an excellent herbal honey tea upon our arrival and throughout the day,” explained Lt. Luke Einerson.


The next day the Utah Guard and their Moroccan counterparts traveled to Chbika, a small hamlet on the southern coast with a population of about 300 nomadic fishermen and residents.  An incredible turnout resulted in 235 patient visits with medical specialists.


A slightly larger town of Telimzoune then received medical visits for two days from the medical teams. And despite the busyness of the staff, many found time during the deployment to make friends and give of themselves.


Breaking Down Language Barriers


For this mission the Utah Guard deployed both French and Arabic linguists from the 300th Military Intelligence Brigade to facilitate doctor-patient communication. Due to a heavy demand, some of the translation cycles were complicated as they were often from a patient who spoke Arabic through a translator who only spoke French and Arabic to a Utah Guard soldier who spoke French and English and finally on to the medical doctor who only spoke English. 


Often in these remote areas, even the Moroccan doctors needed translation assistance.  While they were thoroughly educated in French and Arabic, many of their patients spoke only a Berber dialect that additional linguists from the local area were required to translate.


Working As a Joint Team


Airmen and Soldiers who normally do not train jointly came together to carry out this critical mission.


“The team became one rather than an Air or Army entity,” said Senior Master Sergeant Merlin Tomshack. “The Moroccan providers worked seamlessly with our providers and technicians. Given the state of the world, there was truly peace on this mission in Morocco.”


Moroccan military doctors volunteered for this humanitarian mission from large communities such as Rabat, the capital, and other metropolitan areas in the country. 


Photo by Maj. Chris Patterson

Lt. Col. Paul Byrd runs a footrace with some of the local Moroccan children.

Lt. Col. James Nelson, a Utah Air Guard doctor, with an OB-GYN practice in American Fork, Utah, likened this humanitarian operation with Morocco to providing primary health care in less-privileged areas of the United States.


“We are able to work jointly with our Moroccan friends to provide health care to people who would not normally have access,” said Nelson.


An added benefit of the exercise is that the Utah Guard was also able to work with Moroccan doctors on global and local health issues and together provided solutions for these remote areas that rarely see medical doctors and specialists.


Obstetricians and Gynecologists Deliver


The three Utah National Guard OB-GYN physicians assigned to the exercise were members of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecology (ACOG). Lt. Col. James Nelson; Lt. Col. Jon Ahlstrom, Ogden, and Maj. Walter Townson, Sandy, all have successful private practices here in Utah.


“This year our Moroccan friends requested that we bring over more doctors specializing in obstetrics and gynecology,” said Nelson, who is also a flight surgeon in the Utah Air National Guard.


In addition to the medical expertise Utah was able to bring to Morocco, doctors also arrived equipped to pass along 24 donated copies of the 2006 ACOG Compendium, as well as Williams Obstetrics and other gynecology, pediatric and medical textbooks.


“These generous donations provided the latest encyclopedias of OB-GYN information directly to rural areas of Morocco and to excellent doctors in Morocco who will put them to immediate use,” said Nelson.


The Moroccan visits have not only benefited the Moroccan people, but U.S. doctors were also able to learn a new culture and make friends.


“Last year, I was able to diagnose twins for a new Moroccan mother,” said Ahlstrom. “We were able to perform sonograms and inform pregnant women of the sex of the fetus and also printed pictures of the fetus for people who had probably never even heard of the procedure before.”


The best surprise of the physicians’ deployment to Morocco came on the last day of their travels in the coast city of El Quatia, Morocco. This quiet port town is home to many fishermen and beautiful beaches that are largely unspoiled by humans. The clinic in El Quatia responded quickly to the emergency of a pregnant mother who was already in advanced labor with the Moroccan and U.S. doctors working together again as they had throughout the past week.


“A Moroccan OB-GYN whom we have been working closely with, Dr. Mustafa, delivered the baby boy after only a few minutes of his mother’s arrival, and I was able to assist with the birth and cutting the cord,” reported a smiling Townson.


Physician Assistants Make a Difference


Physician assistants are a critical cog in the military medical machine, and Utah PA’s made a great contribution to this mission in various areas to include general medicine, dermatology, OB-GYN and pediatrics.


“Physician assistants are invaluable contributors as they are fully functioning providers who act independently and competently, allowing the attending M.D. to see many more patients,” said Col. Peter Taillac, an emergency-room physician at the University of Utah Medical Center and senior medical officer in the Utah National Guard’s Medical Command.


Describing military physician assistants as “the wheels that the army medical machine runs on,” Taillac further explained the role of physician assistants in the military.


“They are able to handle 95 percent of the issues that come through the door, and this is a reflection of Army philosophy,” said Taillac. “As far as taking care of troops, [physician assistants] are the ones who get to do it, and our military has the best trained physician assistants in the world.”


During this brief deployment, Utah’s physician assistants were able to better many lives. Among the over 2,500 patients seen during a six-day period, Lt. Col. Kenneth Wade, a practicing Physician Assistant in a private OB-GYN practice in Logan, who has also provided health care in Guatemala, Nicaragua and many other Latin-American countries, was able to diagnose gallstones through an ultrasound and refer a woman for surgery in a matter of minutes, affording her the opportunity to receive the health care she needed.


Maj. David Furuta, a full-time Army physician assistant in the Utah National Guard’s Medical Command, treated a fisherman patient in a small coastal city. This man was suffering with a swollen and very tender ring finger, which had become infected more than a month earlier.


After draining the abscess which had developed in the man’s finger, Furuta opened the wound to find a fish bone measuring over one-quarter inch embedded deep in the tissue. After irrigating the wound with a field-expedient saline and betadine mixture, Furuta and the medical staff sent the patient home with the antibiotic Keflex and enough bandages and ointment so that the finger could heal properly. The medical staff even donated a week’s supply of the heavier OB-GYN surgical gloves so that the fisherman could work without further risk of infection.


“Today we saved a finger and perhaps the whole hand,” observed Lt. Col. Scott Wall, a surgical nurse who assisted throughout the sterile procedure.


Physician Assistant 1st Lt. Fabian Dela Rosa, a member of the Utah Air Guard who lives and practices medicine in El Paso, Texas, for the Texas Tech Orthopedics Clinic, took satisfaction in helping with what might seem more mundane conditions such as asthma, which can be worsened by allergens, dust or pollution.


“When we are able to diagnose and provide treatment options for an asthmatic patient, we open up health possibilities that are life-changing,” Dela Rosa said.


Sharing Our Culture, Making New Friends


During the deployment, members of the Utah medical staff had many opportunities to break the cross-cultural ice with temporary tattoos, bubbles and balloons as they treated patients or helped villagers with the tedium of standing in long lines in the hot sun.


Utah Air Guard Master Sergeant Joe Guimon entertained young children with his balloon animals that brought smiles to many young faces.


Lt. Col. Paul Byrd, an Air Guard psychologist, brought a kite from home, but the breezeless day made it impossible to get it off the ground, so he challenged the kids to a footrace where all finished as winners.


Utah-Morocco relationships were also strengthened when Soldiers and Airmen presented soccer balls, stuffed animals and school supplies to local schoolchildren and orphanages. The materials were supplied by Utah donors.


Summing It Up


In total, the traveling medical clinic treated over 2,500 patients in the Tan Tan area, and many on the medical staff were heard bragging about getting a kiss from grateful children,. All were pleased to spend their time in Morocco volunteering their services to better the lives of their newfound friends. Participating members of the Utah Guard left Morocco with the thanks of thousands and look forward to their return.


Staff Sgt. Steven Maxfield, a medic, EMT and 22-year veteran of the Utah National Guard, summed up their two-week mission in Morocco as he fitted a young nine-year-old Moroccan boy with new glasses.


“We’re here to improve the vision that the world has of Americans and to improve the quality of life for these patients,” Maxfield said.


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