CAMP TONDIBIAH, Niger — A group of eager children gathered inside the Soudoure Primary School, just outside the gates of the base, to hear their American visitors talk about healthcare.
Maj. Joe Alvarez and Capt. Andrew Gibson paid a visit to the school while taking a short break from working at the clinic. The two were part of a 12-person Air Force Reserve medical team that was in Niger as part of a humanitarian mission.
"I was a little apprehensive, because it was going to take time away from the clinic," Major Alvarez, a dentist from the 445th Aeromedical Staging Squadron, Wright Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, said. "But after it was all done I saw the importance of he contribution to the children's well being."
Major Alvarez handed each of the more than 30 children, ranging in age from 12-15, tooth brushes and showed them the proper way to brush their teeth and discussed nutritional aspects of eating refined sugars. Throughout the session, the students and teachers asked questions.
"Although the class was crowded and hot, the kids were extremely attentive and disciplined and eager to hear our words," Major Alvarez said. "I thought their questions were good."
For Captain Gibson, a physician's assistant with the 6th Medical Group, MacDill AFB, Fla., the topic of discussion was general healthcare and hygiene.
"I asked them how many wash their hands after using the toilet," Captain Gibson said. "About half of them raised their hands. They were amused by that question, but it served to connect me with the students."
Captain Gibson also gave each child a pack of multivitamins and a packet of medicine to treat worms. The vast majority of children in the region are affected by worms.
"I told them one pill would treat them for worms in their digestive tract and to take the extra pills home to treat family members," he said.
Both doctors considered the school visit a highlight of the mission. Although (the doctors) saw children everyday while walking to the clinic, the opportunity to interact with (the children) directly was memorable for both.
"I think young minds are very impressionable and if our visit spurs one student to improve his life, than it was definitely a worthwhile venture," Captain Gibson said. "Moreover, it raises their awareness of what causes disease and illness and the simple things they can do that can have a dramatic effect on their health and well being."
Even though, some of the students are studying English, translator Hamadou Soumana, a Nigerien citizen, was there to translate the conversation to French.
"It was really nice," Mr. Soumana said. "It's really fine to get the children involved. They didn't expect the visit. It might be a once in a lifetime experience for them."
The visit was also an experience for the three teachers that were present. "The teachers also learned a lot," Mr. Soumana said. "They will surely pass the information to others."
"We learned a lot about medical, especially related to stomach ache and tooth care," said French teacher Zakari Djibo, through Mr. Soumana's translation. "They have been very nice to us and allowed us to ask questions. I am sure we'll benefit from it one day and we'll remember the visit forever."
For student Moussa Seydou, age 15, the visit was a welcomed experience. "It's nice that they have been here," he said through a translator. "We are happy to learn about basic health and medicine. Everybody is excited.
"I learned how to brush teeth and how to prevent worms. We are happy to get vitamins and worm medicine."
The visit also allowed the doctors to correct some of the misguided beliefs the Nigeriens held on some healthcare issues. For example, it was believed that a person could get a cavity from using someone else's toothbrush.
"It helped them get rid of some prejudices," Mr. Soumana said. "This is very important." "It was nice to be able to dispel some of their wildly held beliefs that were well intentioned, but wrong," Major Alvarez said.
Once the reservists we're finished talking with the students and teachers, the teachers thanked the reservists for their time and help and hoped this won't be the last time they talk to one another.
"We exchanged addresses and e-mail in hopes that they will contact us," said Captain Gibson, "so we can stay in touch and continue to inspire them to better their existence."