GUATEMALA — Holding a big-toothed dog puppet in one hand and an oversized plastic toothbrush in the other, I asked the children in front of me, “Who knows what this is?”
“Un cepillo!” they answered in giggling unison. A brush!
“And what do you do with it?” I asked. A brave little girl, dressed in a traditional Maya skirt and blouse, grabbed the prop and demonstrated on the puppet while the rest erupted in laughter.
There were 50 or so children lined up on the long porch of the municipal building in San Martin Jilotepeque, a village in the hills above Antigua, Guatemala. I was assisting a week-long, pop-up dental clinic as a general volunteer with Global Dental Relief (GDR), a non-profit organization based in Denver, CO, which also runs trips to Nepal, India, Cambodia, and Kenya. GDR generally travels with 20 dentists, dental students, hygienists, and general volunteers, who pay a fee to cover the costs of the trip.
The Clinic Model
I’m no dentist, but there was plenty for me to do, keeping a steady flow of patients through the six dentist chairs and other stations. During my Peace Corps service in Nicaragua (1998-2000), I worked with the Ministry of Education; currently, I'm a K-12 Spanish teacher in Boulder, CO. I translated, entertained children awaiting treatment, and also taught these mini oral health classes.
The laughter helped break some of the fear among the children who stood there with dentist bibs around their necks and massive smiles on their faces. The smiles were mostly big and fun, but some were tinged with nervousness—and many revealed visibly rotten teeth.
My partner for the morning, Steve Hughes, a pre-dental student from the University of California—Merced, stepped in with some cartoon-y pictures of broccoli, apples, Coca-Cola bottles and candy for the next part of the lesson. Our group would provide oral health education, teeth cleanings and dental care (mainly fillings and extractions) to some 600 schoolchildren before the week was out.
Though I have three decades of experience in service and volunteering abroad, I’d never been on a clinical trip like this one. I was impressed with the efficiency of the operation—from technical aspects, like running a compressor to power the drills and suction machines, to the logistical process of gathering so many students from San Martin and the surrounding communities.
Still, I remained skeptical about short-term service trips, knowing the many potential pitfalls (creating dependency, fostering the white savior complex or taking work from local dentists). But the more I saw and experienced, the more impressed I became. GDR is well aware that some forms of well-intentioned service can have unintended, harmful effects. When I asked GDR founder and director Kimberly Troggio about this, she listed the following: “1. We only work in communities and with partners who have requested our help; 2. Local partners work in the clinic side-by-side with our volunteers; they have full participation and buy-in to this work; 3. We never allow [dental] students to work on patients as ‘a learning opportunity’; 4. Families choose if their child goes to the clinic and give consent; and 5. We are committed to these communities for years, not just a few times.”
After our lesson, I walked inside to see where else I was needed. I sidled up to Dr. Liliane Brantes’s chair, where a brave 7-year-old girl had just sat down. Dr. Brantes, a retired dentist based in Denver, CO, who has been on dozens of these trips in all five countries where GDR operates, explained that they focus on children as opposed to adults, because adult dental problems are too far advanced to be able to efficiently treat in this setting. Removing primary teeth from children, on the other hand, is fast and provides immediate relief from pain.
“Imagine trying to concentrate in school when you’re in constant pain,” said Dr. Brantes as she pointed out all the cavities in one 7-year-old girl’s mouth.
“Which ones will you treat?” I asked, peering over her shoulder. She turned to her young patient and asked in Spanish, “Which three teeth hurt you the most?”
Without hesitating the girl pointed to two upper teeth and a lower molar. “I’ll take those three out,” said Dr. Brantes, readying her anesthesia. She would go home numb and then sore, but she would have immediate relief from suffering.
I’m not the only RPCV who has been attracted to GDR’s trips. John Gleazer (Nepal 1977-1979) heard about GDR from his sister, Susan, a pediatrician who invited him to join her on a trip to Nepal, in honor of their deceased parents. He’s not a dentist but “as a general volunteer,” he reported, “I assisted the dentist with whom I was paired, handing her instruments, mixing amalgam, filling out the child's chart, whatever she needed.”
When I asked how his service in Nepal had prepared him for his GDR trip to Cambodia last year, he said, “My Peace Corps experience basically dissolved my preconceptions about the so-called inferiority of poor countries. The differences I encountered in rural Siem Reap [where he went with GDR] were not particularly different from that. I expected that I would appreciate the Cambodian people I met, especially the young ones, and that's what happened.”
“GDR made the trip as effortless as it could be,” he continued. “They scheduled the flights, had a driver meet us at the airport and gave us great accommodations. Every day was well planned, including the tourist activities during our free time. I am particularly excited about returning to [my host country of] Nepal. Much of the language I learned many years ago is still with me and I look forward to speaking Nepali again.”
At the end of the day, we gathered in the Full Moon Cafe where local chef Cristy Velasco was serving up big plates of rice, stew and tamalitos. We ate three meals a day with Cristy, who told me on my last day there, “My goal is to keep them full, happy and healthy, because they’re doing a great job and they need to be fed and full. I cook with love,” she said, “like I’m cooking for my own family, so I treat every meal like it’s a fiesta or a celebration, and I do my very best.”
Global Dental Relief runs over 25 trips every year in five countries. Learn more at www.globaldentalrelief.org.
Joshua Berman (Nicaragua 1998-2000) is a travel writer and Spanish teacher. Follow him at @tranquilotravel or find him at his website, http://joshuaberman.net.