War on Terrorism

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Face of Defense: Doctor, Technician Care for Local Afghans

By Air Force Staff Sgt. Stephenie Wade
455th Air Expeditionary Wing

BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan, July 23, 2013 – An ophthalmologist assigned to the Craig Joint Theater Hospital here provides humanitarian care for local Afghans in his spare time.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Air Force Maj. (Dr.) Marcus Neuffer examines and compares the eyes of a 6-year-old Afghan patient July 6, 2013, at the Joint Craig Theater Hospital ophthalmology clinic, Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. Neuffer recently completed a surgery on her right eye to correct a cataract. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Stephenie Wade

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Air Force Maj. (Dr.) Marcus Neuffer's primary job here is to take care of patients with traumatic eye injuries, but when he is not busy in the operation room, he and his technician, Air Force Airman 1st Class Chellbie Gonzales, support the local population.

"At home, we mainly perform refractive surgery and provide specialty eye care," Neuffer said. Gonzales serves as Neuffer's assistant both here and at their home base, Keesler Air Force Base, Miss. They both are serving their first deployment and humanitarian effort. Every week, they go to the South Korean hospital to treat patients from off base.

"The eye injuries and conditions here are not common in the Unites States, because the environment, health care system and patient demographics are different," Neuffer said.

Neuffer is the only doctor here who is qualified to operate on eyes. Local patients who come to one of the humanitarian hospitals and need eye surgery are brought to Craig Joint Theater Hospital. Neuffer has operated on a dozen Afghan patients.

"I have performed cataract surgery on three children here so far: a 12-month-old boy, a 6-year-old girl and an 8-year-old boy," he said. "A child's eyesight stops developing at about 8. If I can perform surgery before then, with glasses, the children should be able to regain enough vision to perform daily tasks."

Cataracts, typically seen in older adults, can severely limit vision. In the United States, cataracts found in children usually are removed within the first two months of life.

"Unfortunately, the Afghan children don't have as good of health care here, and some are left blind their whole life," Gonzales said. "It's hard to tell exactly how old each patient is, because of the lack of medical care and records."

After the surgery, Gonzales schedules follow-up appointments for one day, one week and one month out to track the patient's progress, she said. On the second appointment, glasses are issued.

"My job is very rewarding here," Gonzales said. "There's something special about seeing the children recognize objects and interact with the world."

Neuffer said so far the outcome of these procedures on children has been good. For one 8-year-old-boy, it's been an awakening. Months ago, he picked up a land mine while playing. It exploded in his hands, resulting in cataracts and other injuries.

"When I first met him, his father led him by the hand, because he could only see light," Neuffer said. "A week after his surgery when the bandages came off, he put on glasses I gave him, and he was able to see our faces. He was so excited he could see again he jumped up, pushed his family out of the way and ran straight into a wall. It was a happy, but comical, moment for us."

Neuffer said he joined the Air Force to help those in need.

"Someday when this place is safer, I hope to establish a program that will help everyone," he said. "For now, my goal is to give children as much vision as possible. Having vision allows people to work and contribute to make their society better."

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