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149th Fighter Wing nurse treats patients from ship

LACKLAND AFB, Texas -- A family nurse practitioner and a Texas Air National Guard officer, she deployed aboard a U.S. Navy ship and ultimately served as an ambassador for Americans to 14 countries in the Caribbean and Central and South America.

Lt. Col. Melanie Truesdell, of the 149th Medical Squadron based here, participated in a four-month humanitarian deployment with the USNS Comfort. Although the duty tour concluded before the end of 2007, only recently did this writer have an opportunity to sit down to speak with her and look at photo images.

The USNS Comfort visited ports in Belize, Guatemala, Panama, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Antigua, Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, Guiana, Surinam and Haiti, and provided medical treatment in dentistry, dermatology, internal medicine, optometry and pediatrics at each one for five days.

Huge crowds and long lines were already formed every morning when the medical team went ashore to perform its mission, beginning with a screening of each potential patient.

"We treated anything that didn't require follow-up," Colonel Truesdell said. "For example, if a person had high blood pressure, then we would refer them to the host nation's medical liaison."

She explained that a patient would be taken aboard the ship for minor surgery only if the surgery could be performed and the patient returned safely to shore before the ship's departure.

As part of the medical contingent, Colonel Truesdell said she herself treated approximately 2,500 patients. She added that the patients included all age groups, the oldest in their 90s.

In one country, according to Colonel Truesdell, a crowd forced its way through a gate to gain access to the medical team, but local authorities soon were able to restore order.
"The countries I'd go back to were Haiti and Ecuador," Colonel Truesdell said. "They have the most need."

Situations varied from country to country. In some ports the screening and treatment area was some distance from the dock, which required a period of travel in addition to long and intense duty days. Back onboard the ship, there was more travel by foot.

"There were 120 steps between the living area and the work area," said Colonel Truesdell, who noted that there were of six to eight officers and 85-100 enlisted personnel, every one of whom slept on bunk beds, and none of the sleeping areas had portholes. "We had to go upside to get our Vitamin D," she continued.

Colonel Truesdell's duties didn't end at the shoreline. She also handled sick call and served as a member of the medical response team.

"One young civilian nurse got her hand pinched between the boats while in transport from ship to shore," Colonel Truesdell related. "She lost two fingertips and had to undergo emergency surgery. Thanks to an Air Force occupational therapist ... she was rehabilitated to better than 90 percent before she left."

Back home in Texas, Colonel Truesdell practices her profession at the Georgetown Minute Clinic. She said she is one of few family nurse practitioners in the National Guard and noted that, of the 60 Air Force personnel on the deployment, four others belonged to the Texas Air National Guard.

"We melded together," she said of her relationship with the other ANG nurses. "At the end of the day, you visit with your friends."

Colonel Truesdell said the deployment gave each medical member an opportunity to grow in their knowledge of health care outside the United States. More importantly, it sent a strong message of compassion and caring to people in Latin American and the Caribbean.

"I may not see all the medical effects," said Colonel Truesdell. "But I can see the long-lasting impression that Americans are good and can provide quality, professional care."