Military stop brings health care to rural Alabama

AP News

5/9/2012 5:01:28 PM - AP News

An Air Force dentist pulls teeth in the oil-stained garage where the town's fire truck normally parks. A reservist in camouflage dispenses free medicine in the police department lobby.

The doctoring Wednesday was part of a military program to provide free health care in poor areas of the South and whose latest mission came to one of Alabama's most impoverished regions, where the teams have treated more than 12,000 people in less than two weeks. The work helps fill a gap in an area with few doctors and a multitude of medical problems, many of them linked to the obesity that is rampant in the state.

All day, people with high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, rotting teeth and failing eyes wait to see doctors, nurses and other uniformed health professionals from the Air National Guard, Air Force Reserve and Navy Reserve at Hayneville City Hall, which has been temporarily converted into a health clinic for the program. Similar clinics set up in Demopolis and Selma have treated thousands more since opening May 1; the temporary program ends Thursday.

Leaving with an update on her blood pressure problems and a bag full of pills, Mamie Brenson, 45, of Selma was thankful for a rare chance to see a doctor.

""I really love this," she said. "I'm happy for it, y'all."

Now in its third year in Alabama, the Pentagon's Innovative Readiness Training program is administered in parts of the South by the Delta Regional Authority, a federal-state partnership that promotes economic development in parts of eight Southern states. The authority has brought similar health projects to Arkansas and Mississippi. Aside from the South, troops have provided health care and other services including dog inoculations and sewer repairs from Hawaii to Alaska.

In return for the care, the troops get the occasional donated meal or a hug from patients, plus valuable training. Their work is part of a program that sends guard members and reservists into some of America's poorest communities, where they learn to set up health clinics and other projects and deal with large numbers of people, just as they might do after a natural disaster or in a foreign county.

Jim Byard, director of the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs, said calling in the military isn't the long-term solution to improving health care in Alabama's Black Belt, an impoverished, aging region named for its dark soil and beset by poor nutrition and high obesity rates.

"But it is a Band-Aid that's helping," said Byard. As he spoke, a reservist checked a woman's blood pressure in the municipal courtroom.

With bad eyesight and a plus-size waistline that puts him at risk for high blood pressure, Ricky Brothers of the rural Davenport community normally must drive 30 minutes or more to see a doctor in Montgomery. But distance is only one of the roadblocks to regular health checks for people living in the Black Belt.

"Medicaid has been cut off for a lot of us, we don't have jobs, don't have any money to fund as far as doctors at all," Brothers said as he waited to have his eyes checked in a clinic set up in the town's conference room.

Industries are scarce and unemployment exceeds 12 percent in most of west Alabama, and Mayor Helenor Bell said improving the area's overall health is an important step toward pulling the old plantation region out of generations of poverty.

"If you're always sick you can't work, you can't learn," said Bell.

Hayneville, located about 25 miles southwest of the Capitol in Montgomery, has about 930 residents, 85 percent of whom are black. Census figures show about 35 percent of its residents live below federal poverty levels, and more than half of the town's families get by on total incomes of $25,000 or less annually.

The commander of the medical program, Air Force Col. Jerry Arends, said obesity is the "overwhelming" health problem encountered by troops seeing patients at City Hall. The cause of the fatness epidemic isn't hard to see _ the town's gas station is also its main lunch stop, with a menu of pizza, fried foods and honey buns.

"It contributes to the overwhelming numbers we run into here or in any other of our missions," he said. "We had a mission about a month and a half ago in Hawaii, the highland of Kauai, and we really dealt with the same public health issues."

About 55 medical personnel are treating patients at Hayneville. In all, about 250 troops are in the state through the program. Aside from general health care screening and nutrition counseling, military doctors are fitting patients for eyeglasses and pulling teeth by the dozens.

Dental hygiene and care is almost nonexistent in some households, and Air Force dentist Tina Stoner of Quincy, Ill., only took a few minutes to extract four teeth from a middle-aged woman seated in a portable chair in the fire truck bay.

"There just wasn't anything holding them in," said Stoner.