Military medical team holds clinic in impoverished Benin
NAVAL STATION ROTA, Spain — Word traveled fast through southern Benin that military doctors were offering free medical care.
Patients in the impoverished West African nation lined up and waited for hours in the broiling 90-degree temperatures and stifling humidity.
Some residents walked more than a dozen miles to see the group of Belgian, American and Beninese military doctors.
Lt. Cmdr. Mark Flynn, the head family practice doctor at the U.S. Navy hospital in Rota, Spain, said there was a widespread belief the doctors could “work magic for them.”
“It was not uncommon for us to talk to people who walked 30 kilometers to come see us,” Flynn said. “And they would turn around and walk 30 kilometers back at the end of the day. And that was just so they could see if we could help them with whatever it might be.”
Seven American military medical personnel from Rota and Stuttgart, Germany, participated in the French-led exercise in Benin, a former French colony between Togo and Nigeria that borders the Bight of Benin. The peacekeeping and humanitarian aid drill, which ended last weekend, aimed to bring West African soldiers together with their Western counterparts to learn what to do if a crisis erupted in the troubled region. About 3,000 troops from various nations took part.
For American servicemembers, it was an opportunity to provide medical care to those who needed it and to make friends in a region racked by instability and violence.
Few people in the impoverished nation, where an Army captain makes $30 a month, have access to decent medical care.
The medical clinic set up about four miles from the city of Ouidah on the southern coast served as a small part of the exercise, but the team treated hundreds of patients. In the eight days the clinic was open, the team treated 1,340 people, or about 167 people a day.
Malaria was the biggest problem among patients. But a bigger obstacle at times was overcoming stereotypes and Beninese children’s fear of those with white skin. Many of them had never seen white people.
Flynn learned about 30 words of the tribal language and tried to ease the apprehension among patients, especially the children.
“The medicine was almost secondary in a lot of cases to be able to get them to understand that we’re not any different than they are in most respects,” he said. “So to be able to connect with them was a pretty important thing.”
Although the team helped hundreds of residents, the clinic helped only a small portion of the country, where the life expectancy is only 50 years old for men and 51 years old for women. The clinic was limited in the care it could provide.
“It was a very rewarding experience,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Glenn Davis, a corpsman stationed in Rota. “In some respects it was sad, we weren’t able to heal anyone, we were only able to help.”