By C. Todd Lopez
GUATEMALA CITY, Guatemala (Oct. 31, 2022) -- Building partnerships with local dental professionals while promoting healthy smiles was the focus of the recent HEART 22 operation, which concluded last month in Guatemala.
As part of HEART 22, which stands for Health Engagements Assistance Response Team 2022, soldiers and airmen of Joint Task Force-Bravo, Soto Cano Air Base, Honduras, led U.S. military medical professionals on a mission in Honduras and Guatemala to provide dental, orthopedic and ophthalmology services to citizens in both nations. A big part of that mission was building enduring partnerships and relationships with medical doctors already there.
About 70 miles west of Guatemala City, the capital of Guatemala, is Quetzaltenango, also called Xela. Air Force Maj. (Dr.) Rondre F. Baluyot, who's stationed at Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota, and Air Force Master Sgt. Julian Blyden II, who's stationed at Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi, helped relieve the burden experienced by dentists there who are overtaxed and who have limited equipment.
"What we saw here in Xela [is] they're pretty limited with the [number] of dental procedures that they can do," Baluyot said. "It's mainly extractions and no type of fillings or cleanings or anything like that. There was a limitation to the amount of work that we're able to do."
What Baluyot said he saw in Guatemala at the facility in Xela was different from what he saw in Honduras at Hospital Escuela, in the capital city Tegucigalpa.
"As far as Hospital Escuela in Honduras, they did have a [few] more procedures we were able to do there," he said. "We were able to do fillings, we were able to work with children; there were a couple of cases that I was able to do prosthetic work. And they even had orthodontics and oral surgery. At Hospital Escuela, we were able to see pediatrics to geriatrics."
What was the same in both places, he said, were the struggles with age of equipment and lack of supplies.
Blyden said the game plan for the two locations was different -- but the goal was the same -- to treat patients and create professional partnerships.
"In Honduras, we had the opportunity to come together as a team and come up with a game plan and figure out exactly how the patient loads were looking for the day," Blyden said. "We spoke with the director at the dental clinic there at Hospital Escuela and figured out exactly how many patients they were seeing that day and assisted as much as possible with them."
In Guatemala, he said, it was unknown each day how many patients would need care, as patients arrived at-will for treatment.
"The patients typically would just show up and we had to diagnose exactly what was going on, and then treat the patient," he said.
In both places, both medical professionals said they think they made a difference with the work they did.
In Guatemala, Baluyot said he was able to work together with one dentist
"The one dentist that I was able to work with we were able to share ideas," Baluyot said. "We were able to look at radiographs and ... confirm ... each [diagnosis]. And a lot of times we came up with the same thing. Even though we had a little bit of a language barrier we always had, when we concurred with a diagnosis or a treatment, it was the 'yes' and then the nice camaraderie that we actually agreed, even though there was that language barrier there."
In Guatemala, Baluyot said, the biggest contribution might have been to relieve the dentist there of the grueling patient load they often experience.
Further south, in Honduras, Blyden said he saw there had been more opportunity for U.S military dentists to partner with Honduran dentists.
"I think we have more opportunity to actually train and run different ideas against each other," Blyden said. "One of our providers, our periodontist, was able to set up a briefing and a training for a lot of the local dentists there. And he was able to provide [education about] different surgery procedures that they were able to sit in on and watch. He was able to educate them and show them the reasoning behind certain procedures and how to provide those procedures to the patients."
In all, Baluyot said U.S. military dentists saw about 350 or so patients in Guatemala and Honduras, and the work they did there as part of HEART 22 didn't just benefit the patients. It also benefited the doctors in Honduras and Guatemala and the U.S. military medical professionals, as well.
Baluyot said in Honduras, the work he did there as part of HEART 22 highlighted the training he got in the Air Force, due to the diverse array of cases he saw there -- which is a different mix than what he might see back home.
"We had a diverse [number] of cases there ranging from pediatrics to fillings, to extractions, to [prosthodontics,]" he said. "It really made me just dig back into a lot of the knowledge that we are trained for in the Air Force with my program. I think it also strengthened my passion for teaching. I had an opportunity to work with the Honduran oral surgery residents and the pre-doctoral dental students. And I think that was probably one of the highlights, so far. of just my whole dental career was working at the dental school. Being able to teach dental students from a different country, I think that just strengthened my passion for teaching others."
He said he looks forward to taking what he learned and the experience from HEART 22 and bringing it back home to teach other dentists at Minot AFB.
What the HEART 22 experience provided Blyden was a different perspective on dental care and service.
"I always knew there were different countries that are at different levels than we are," he said. "But it made me have a better appreciation for what I do, and how taking care of patients is very important. Also, even after the procedures were done, the gratitude the patients felt for us was phenomenal. Even though ... there's a language barrier, we understood how grateful they were. Compassion is a universal language."
The HEART 22 mission kicked off in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, in mid-July and closed out in early September in Guatemala. About 50 U.S. military medical professionals and support personnel from both the Air Force and the Army participated in the operation.