Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Starfish and Ripples - Musings from Guatemala dental mission trip

Recently, my wife, Dr. Gina Kessler and 15 other colleagues from Dentistry Making a Difference went to Guatemala for a dental mission trip.  We have always wanted to do something along these lines.  The opportunity presented itself so we decided to go for it.  Here are some of my musings. 

March 7, 2018 - I am in San Pedro, Guatemala on a dental mission trip with my wife, staff and several colleagues.  We are seeing people who are in extreme poverty with huge dental needs.  My comfort zone is being stretched in huge ways as I am not in my "cushy urban" office anymore.  We are in a 5 chair clinic that opened recently through the Spear “Open Wide Foundation”. 

One patient I will never forget.  Her name is Araceli. She is a beautiful 5 year old girl, dressed in a pink jacket and a traditional style dress. I haven’t treated a child this age since dental school.  I don’t know who is more nervous - her or me.

Araceli (5 y.o) looking into the clinic

In the morning, she had been outside watching us do our work from a window outside the clinic.  Her turn was in the afternoon.  She came in terrified and reserved - probably frozen by fear.  I had a translator help with the communication. I looked in her mouth and my heart sank. She had dental needs in every tooth due to rampant decay. I consulted with the staff dentist at the clinic hoping that she would say refer her to a pediatric dentist - this kid needs to go to the OR for her treatment.  There were none to be seen. The staff dentist and I consulted, it was decided to take out her five front teeth (c-g).  This was just scratching the surface of her dental needs.   

I gave her injections and pulled her teeth.  

She screamed, I cried. I fought through my own emotions and got to work as quickly as I could.  She screamed some more, I cried some more. 

When it was over she calmed down and gave me a hug, thanked me for helping her. I am not really sure if I helped her.  She is a kid that, if she was in the states, she would be brought to the operating room for her treatment. My mind was racing with questions probing the unknown.   Did I really help her?  Did I traumatize her?  How will she get the help she needs?  How will her dentition turn out?  How will her psyche be affected?  I took out 5 infected front teeth. Will her adult smile reflect the beauty of this girl as she grows into adulthood.  If her teeth are this infected, how is her overall health?

Gina, Araceli and me after her treatment.

There is so much dental disease here. There are not enough dentists in the world to fix all the decay here.  How can I possibly be making a difference?

Starfish story link - 

I have come to the conclusion that I made a difference for Araceli. I may not have been able to address all the needs in this town.  But I made a difference for her.  Our team of 5 dentists and 12 assistants/hygienists made a difference for the 100 or so patients that were seen in our clinic these past 5 days.  

Hopefully she will start to brush, floss and change her diet. I am not sure if there is clean water where she lives.  She probably doesn’t even have running water let alone indoor plumbing in in her house.  I tried to explain Araceli’s dire need for more dental work to a lady that said she was her grandmother. (She also said she was the grandmother to the several other kids that were there that day).  I am not sure if she understood - I didn’t speak Spanish, she didn’t speak English.  My recommendations were translated to her, but was it heard? 

Guatemala has what is considered extreme poverty.  The average income for a family is $300/month.  Over 25% of the population is considered illiterate.  School is mandated for 6 years, but the average is a little over 4.  There just aren’t resources for them - especially in the rural areas.  

I know that there are similar situations happening in our communities back in the states as well.  I feel that for most though, they have a chance. There is infrastructure to provide opportunities to get help.  I also know there is not enough.  

The dental future for Araceli and her family may have changed trajectory based on this experience.  I hope so. I also hope that her experience in our clinic will ripple out in ways that she will be able to contribute to the world in her own unique way. Who knows, she may become a staff dentist at a similar clinic in her community.  

We never know who we impact or how we affect someone - be it our patients, friends, colleagues, acquaintances, etc.   It could be that we get someone out of pain, fix their smile, remove infection.  It may be that a conversation that we have with our patients every single day finally sticks with someone.   We never know when someone hears something that catalyzes a much needed change in their life.  All we can do is keep doing the best we can - sharing our unique skillset to those in need.  I have had many patients come back for their six month cleaning and check up and tell me how our conversations changed the trajectory of their lives.  I feel that a smile is a window to the soul and we do everything we can to help our patient’s soul shine through. A smile can change a person’s life.  

I have come to the conclusion that we made a difference today for Araceli.  We barely scratched the surface, but we made a difference for her.  

I hope that the difference we made for her (and our patients back at home) ripples out into the world to create more positive difference.  

Starfish and ripples.