By Christopher Baldwin
Published: Saturday, January 18, 2014 at 7:23 p.m.
On Oct. 28, 2013, Dr. Jay Garlitz flew from L.A. to Fiji, where he met up with a 19-member international team of amateur radio operators, or HAMs, who were traveling to the central Pacific island of Banaba — which is known by HAMs as one of the world’s most sought-after locales.
Garlitz, a dentist and president of Gator Dental Associates P.A. in Hawthorne, was asked to be a part of the expedition not just because he is a HAM, but because the island’s Rabi Council of Leaders requested they bring a dentist to provide much-needed services to its citizens.
Garlitz spoke this week to the Gainesville Amateur Radio Society about his experiences during the first such expedition to Banaba since 2004. The presentation
was just one of many he has and will be giving over the course of the next few months.
Garlitz said he received the request to be part of the expedition through his involvement with the Medical Amateur Radio Council and decided to accept the challenge, finding it important enough to take a month off work for the expedition. At first, however, he didn’t even know where the expedition was headed.
“They didn’t even tell us what the expedition was because it was only in the planning stages and was hush, hush at that point,” he said.
The expedition team arrived in Fiji on the Oct. 30, 2013, then took a flight from Fiji to Betio, Tarawa, which is perhaps best known for World War II’s Battle of Tarawa.
A Catamaran charter boat then took them to Banaba Island on Nov. 3, 2013.
“A lot of the expeditions never get off the ground because the boats don’t show up,” he said. “If that happens, you have to scrounge around for another boat and hope that you can find someone to get you there.”
While in Tarawa, Garlitz delivered a plaque honoring those who had fallen in the Battle of Tarawa that was given to him by the American Legion Post 230 in Hawthorne to be displayed for the 70th anniversary memorial of the battle, which was to take place on Nov. 20, 2013.
Though he said he couldn’t find a place to post the plaque, he gave it to a friend he had made who worked for a travel agency in Tarawa. She made arrangements to have it posted in the arriving terminal of the airport, where arriving dignitaries got to see it displayed as they arrived for the memorial tribute.
“It actually turned out to be the ideal place to put it,” he said.
The 40-hour boat ride to the Island of Banaba was difficult, Garlitz recalled. There was nothing to do for almost two days, but that wasn’t the worst of it, he said. “The worst part of it (was) it (was) hot, there (was) no air conditioning, it was stagnant (and) there was no real air flow, specifically on the (boat’s) lower section.”
Once on Banaba, there were three celebrations held in the expedition’s honor, and island denizens often came to the Banaba House, a house in disrepair that was used to house visitors. The house was left over from the British occupation of the island.
“It was just like being a part of one community and being accepted in this community,” he said. “You just had friends that treated you like family.”
Members of the expedition quickly got to setting up the radio equipment atop the soccer field, which marked the island’s highest elevation, and in the house where the members slept, which took almost two full days.
During their two-week stay on the island, the group, which had broken up into six teams of three who worked in shifts, connected with 22,300 unique contacts over a total of 83,000 total contacts in 190 countries, Garlitz said.
“There were 23,000 contacts who spoke to us 83,000 times, essentially,” he said.
Of those, 1,515 HAMs made their first-ever contact with Banaba, which Garlitz said is the 25th most sought-after country for amateur operators. The reason it is so sought? Of all the awards HAMs can earn, the DXCC Honor Roll, which is achieved when a HAM has made contact with every active country in the world, is considered the ultimate one.
“It’s an exclusive club,” he said. “And a lot of amateur operators strive for that.”
On the third day, Garlitz visited the island’s medical clinic to make preparations for providing dental care to those in need over the coming days.
Over the span of about a full work week, Garlitz performed 165 extractions on 65 patients, or about 1 in 5 of the island’s denizens, while working out of the island’s medical clinic — all without running water or electricity, which did not allow him the use of modern electrical equipment.
“Sometimes, I took 12 or 13 teeth out on a patient,” he said.
Though the clinic houses no physician, it is normally staffed by a medical assistant. That assistant, however, was not on the island during Garlitz’s time there, so he trained his own assistant, who lined up patients, helped sterilize tools and assisted with procedures.
It turned out that it might have been a good thing that the clinic’s assistant wasn’t present because, after seeing the first few patients of the five who lined up on the first day, Garlitz noticed that the line had grown exponentially. He then asked his assistant if she had scheduled all of them.
“She said, ‘Oh, no, no, no, word got out: You don’t hurt,’ ” he said. “ ‘With the medical assistant, they don’t come here because he hurts people’ because he doesn’t know how to do anesthesia comfortably.”
Garlitz also visited the island’s elementary and middle school, where he gave out toothbrushes, performed exams and fluoride varnishes, and talked to the children about preventive care. He also provided educational materials to the school and medical clinic, he said.
Those are but a few of the gifts he took to Banaba Island. In addition to leaving his medical supplies in both the medical clinic on Banaba Island and the hospital in Tarawa — enough to provide dental care for two and eight people a day — he also took donated shoes, sunglasses, soccer balls, hats and T-shirts sporting Gator logos.
He said he Gatorized the island, because the island is now also the home of a Gator car flag and a homecoming banner taken from the Gator Amateur Radio Club, of which he is a faculty adviser, that reads: We Take the Gator Nation Worldwide Every Day.
“It was just an opportunity to take a little Gator pride and to leave a little bit of Gainesville behind,” he said. “It just gives them an opportunity to interact with a part of the world they weren’t familiar with.”
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