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Athena has landed: 374 MDG revives overseas plastic surgery program

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Samantha White
  • 374th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

The timeline was set and patients were on the move as the carefully selected team prepped and readied to take on the first Athena mission since the coronavirus disease-2019 pandemic.

In the past, overseas patients were sent to the United States for all plastic surgery procedures. With the number of patients needing surgery, this proved to be very costly for patients. Through the Athena program, stateside-based plastic surgeons would travel overseas to provide plastic surgery services to bases without one.

Maj. Christopher Ng, 374th Airlift Wing chief of general surgery, came up with the idea to initiate the Athena mission at Yokota Air Base using his prior experience with the program from a mission at Royal Air Force Lakenheath, England.

“I’ve been through the Athena program before and I understood what it was,” said Ng. “I wanted to bring that capability to Yokota and the Pacific Air Forces to reestablish a process that had previously existed and was beneficial to our community.”

In early April 2024, patients arrived at Yokota from five different bases throughout Japan. Within seven operating days, the Athena crew treated 15 patients and completed a total of 33 procedures.

Alongside Ng was Col. Bryan Curtis, a visiting 60th Medical Group plastic surgeon who returned to Yokota for the revival of the program. Curtis was part of the inaugural Athena team back in 2008 as a general surgeon and after the program revival, decided to reroute his career from general surgery and join Athena missions as a visiting plastic surgeon.

“Coming back here, we were starting with something that had not been done in quite a number of years,” said Curtis. “Interacting with the team, the bonding in the operating room, seeing patients transition from apprehension to excitement–it has just come full circle for me.”

“This program offers services that otherwise would not be available to patients within the PACAF community,” said Curtis. “To allow these services to occur here, in a home location for a patient, relieves a lot of the burden and stress.”

With the success of this first mission, Ng looks to further the reach of the Athena program as it makes its return to the PACAF region. His recent acceptance into a plastic surgery fellowship allows for plans to return for future Athena missions.