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Story Last modified at 5:55 p.m. on Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Medical mission
Eagle River residents join Guardsmen aiding Alabamians

Alaska Star


Col. Ron Kichura, an Eagle River optometrist and commander of the Alaska Air National Guard's 176th Medical Group, checks the eye pressure of Hayneville Mayor Helenore Bell at a temporary clinic there on May 10.
Photo by Capt. John Callahan

They performed blood-pressure checks, filled cavities and fashioned eyeglasses on the spot for more than 1,000 people over eight days.

But extracting themselves from a care-starved community proved to be one of the trickiest procedures for a group of Alaska Air National Guardsmen on a 12-day mission to the small Alabama town of Hayneville.

Mission commander and Eagle River resident Lt. Col. Sharolyn Lange tried to prepare her crew as they opened the doors on May 12, the last day they operated an impromptu free clinic at Hayneville City Hall.

"We were swamped. People were just desperate. The need was extreme, and folks knew it was our last day," Lange said. "I got everybody together and kind of prepared their hearts: 'We will not manage to see everyone. Please find a sentence that works for you when you have to turn people away.' "

Most days, people lined up before the clinic even opened. Some slept in their cars. Others traveled from a distance, including several survivors of the wicked cluster of tornados that killed hundreds across the South. Lange said providers saw patients with major dental problems due to years without adequate care.

"The dentists told me the mouths (they saw) were worse than the Third World," she said.


Hayneville, Ala., residents wait to receive services May 10 at a free medical clinic. Seventy Guard members, including 35 from the Alaska Air Guard, deployed on a 12-day training mission there to provide medical care and other services.

Hayneville, a half-hour's drive from the city of Montgomery, is a small town with just a little over 1,000 residents. The town has one physician, no dentist, one optometrist and no ophthalmologist, Lange said. The unemployment rate is about 14 percent and the median household income is roughly $22,500. Most residents don't have health insurance, Medicare or Medicaid coverage.

The Guard called the 12-day mission "Operation Town of Hayneville 2011" and said it provided valuable training without the pressure of combat while also providing "real-world results."

As mission commander, Lange led 25 members of the Guard's 176th Medical Group, 10 support personnel from other Air Guard units, and another 35 service members from Guard and Reserve units across the country, according to Guard Capt. John Callahan, who also participated in the mission.

Callahan and Lange both talked about how hot Alabama was. Lange – a critical care nurse for the VA at the Elmendorf hospital – also noticed the amazing array of deep-fried foods available.


Lt. Col. Sharolyn Lange, chief nurse for the Guard's 176th Medical Group and an Eagle River resident, assembles a fan on May 8 as temperatures climbed into the 90s.

"I had my first fried pickle," she said.

Many of the team's patients suffered from diabetes and high-blood pressure, Lange said. A U.S. Navy nutritionist gave nutrition classes at City Hall and Lange did some diabetes education, her side specialty. But members of the team struggled a little to communicate in writing because of a relatively low literacy rate among their patients, she said. Providers found themselves focusing on key concepts – emphasizing the importance of walking and taking diabetes medication, for example.

The group slept in the Hayneville Baptist Church. The clinic took over City Hall: dental chairs sprouted in the fire truck bay, optometry stations sprung up in a conference room and a court area housed a vital signs lab.

The community made clear its gratitude on the last day. Locals zipped into the church parking lot to say thank you and wave as they watched the team pack up. The day before, the clinic's last day, Lange made use of her own sentence to turn people away.

"I just told them that we were hopeful that we would be able to come back the next year but at this time we couldn't take any more patients," she said. "There is a chance that area of the nation could have the program again next year."

This article published in The Alaska Star on Wednesday, May 18, 2011.