Last year I attended Team Rubicon’s media presentation at the annual Special Operations Medical Association conference in Tampa, Florida. I was floored by what I heard and saw. At last, after years of “working stateside”, here was a way to get back into the field; to lend help in places that desperately need help. With my previous military experience in Southeast Asia, Thai language skills, and knowledge of the latest techniques and technologies in the arena of austere trauma medicine, I was a shoe-in team member for this year’s Project Karen-Shan.
One of the core tenets of the US military is the concept of “force multiplying”, and training Free Burma Ranger (FBR) medics and Community Health Workers (CHW) in the Karen and Shan State fits that bill perfectly. The Karen and Shan fight to survive the depredations of the Myanmar government, a military regime that is openly hostile towards them. These ethnic groups exist as a “state within a state” that is analogous to the Kurds of the Middle East. The medics and CHWs who are doing their utmost to save their patients from landmine trauma and tropical diseases have the deck stacked against them in several ways: limited education, scarce resources, triple canopy vegetation overlying steep and muddy terrain, poor transportation and communications infrastructure, and lack of medical oversight.
As Team Rubicon conducted the lessons and hands-on practicum at the remote training sites, I was impressed by the motivation and zeal that our students displayed. They asked many intelligent questions and dutifully recorded nearly every spoken word during the classes. They learned quickly, with the focus that comes from knowing that life-and-death lessons taught today may be used tomorrow. Many of the students had traveled from the far corners of their province to attend the training. As for the medical training curriculum, I focused on austere trauma care and prolonged field care, while Dr. Geelhoed imparted upon the students his formidable knowledge of Neglected Tropical Diseases, primary care, and the finer points of surgical technique.
Aside from the big-dollar infrastructure issues – roads, transportation, and communication – what the Burmese medics and CHWs desperately need is training and medical supplies. The training need is an easy fix; between myself and Dr. Geelhoed and other educators in Team Rubicon, I believe we offer an unmatched curriculum that is relevant to their circumstances. As for medical supplies, I will be petitioning the manufacturers of the following products for material donations: oral rehydration salts, elastic bandages, windlass-style tourniquets, conforming stretch gauze bandages, hemostatic agents, tranexamic acid, filtered IV tubing, and whole blood collection bags.
Giving our time and resources to these noble and brave people felt great – empowering those short on resources but long on the will to excel is what these kinds of missions are all about.