Health Engagements Assistance Response Team (HEART) 2022

  • Published
  • By Capt. Eric Vinson
  • 189th Medical Group

I am a Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA), and I recently had the opportunity to deploy among 34 medical professionals and 17 support staff to execute the Health Engagements Assistance Response Team (HEART) mission, a U.S. Southern Command operation. This humanitarian mission, led by Joint Task Force Bravo (JTF-B), took place in Honduras and Guatemala from mid-July 2022 to early- September 2022, with the purpose of providing combined joint opportunities to improve the readiness of both U.S. and partner nation medical personnel through medical assistance efforts and by enhancing combined medical resiliency among regional partners.

     Medical assistance specialties offered included Ophthalmology (general and cornea transplant surgeries), Orthopedics (general, trauma, and oncology) and Dental (restorative dental surgeries). Surgical patients were pre-selected by the host nations to ensure the medical assistance response teams were able to treat patients as efficiently as possible. In total, 993 patients were treated by these three specialty teams, far exceeding the original goals of the mission.

     Durable equipment such as dental chairs and operating tables were ordered for donation to the host nations’ hospitals as well as disposable materials (gowns, gloves, drapes, medications, etc.). Additionally, JTF-B contractors were able to utilize local supply chains to decrease costs, which also benefits the host nation’s economy, bolsters partner relations, and ensures continued support for future surgical needs for affected patients. The ability to purchase surgical implants locally and to provide them to local citizens who could not afford them otherwise provided a huge impact to this mission. All totaled, $1.6 million in Class VIII materials, $100,000 in donations and $20,000 in local procurements were provided during HEART 22.

     While all teams contributed greatly to the success of this mission, I provided anesthesia and primary support for the Orthopedic team. To say the least, it was nothing short of extraordinary. Obviously, we all have joined the military in order to serve in some capacity; to be able to do so by doing what I do on the civilian side, for me, was a very welcomed opportunity. Working beside the dedicated medical personnel (U.S. service members as well as both Honduran and Guatemalan doctors and nurses) was rewarding in the fact that we were able to “compare notes” about different ways to take care of these patients. In doing so, I believe we all learned from one another, which should only serve to benefit all involved going forward.

     Individual examples of the success of this mission are too numerous to recount here, but I will try to provide a couple. As mentioned, through HEART, patients were able to timely receive treatment they would have otherwise continued to wait for, or worse, not receive at all. Many times over, the contractors were able to procure locally and donate implants for trauma patients, who could not afford the surgery. The donations of materials, skill and effort allowed these patients to begin the healing process and hopefully get back to their lives much faster than they otherwise would.

     Another example involved two separate patients in Honduras. Both suffered from a fairly rare bone cancer, osteosarcoma. This affects primarily the long bones of children and young adults, and in many places, the only cure is amputation of the limb. HEART orthopedic surgeons worked with Honduran surgeons to not only remove the cancer but to reconstruct and salvage the limbs of both young individuals. That’s life-changing!

     Ultimately, this mission was a huge success. Medical engagement between the U.S. and partner nations greatly benefits not only the patients who receive actual medical care, but also the personnel involved by building partnerships and relationships for the future. Furthermore, this type of continued engagement provides medical professionals a chance to exchange knowledge and build real-world application of medical support going forward.  

     HEART 22 provided a strong foundation for future missions. The relationships begun with this first one and all lessons learned will serve substantially all future endeavors. Providing care to those most in need is very rewarding; to do so while not only serving our country but while also building these relationships with our neighboring countries is doubly so. In the end, as we know, forging these bonds are important.

     I encourage everyone to seek out these opportunities to serve, in whatever way you can. It will make you remember the reason you decided to put on the uniform and to take that oath. I believe these opportunities bolster the spirit; it does mine. I am honored to be an officer in the Arkansas Air National Guard, and I look forward to and welcome more opportunities like this!