Since 1997, Temple University’s School of Dentistry has collaborated with the Haitian Health Foundation, an institution run by volunteer nurses and Franciscan nuns, to provide free dental care to Haitians.
This past February, a group of 14 junior and senior-year dentistry students, two dentists, and a resident spent eight intensive days in Jeremie, Haiti and the surrounding villages working under conditions that a professional dentist will never encounter in an industrialized country.
Dentistry senior Jared Gianquinto, who has provided similar services in places like Guatemala, talked about the lack of surgical equipment.
“There is no technology, there are no specialists, and you have to rely solely on clinical diagnosis,” Gianquinto said.
The students performed operations without X-rays, radiographs and other basic tools available to dentists at home.
“Starting a surgery you don’t know exactly what you’re getting into, but you learn to deal with it and your surgical skills improve tremendously as a result,” Gianquinto said.
In addition to these adverse conditions, the teams of dentists were confronted with extreme, unusual cases of built up tartar, bridged teeth, and cavities on a full complement of thirty-two adult teeth.
In most situations the students had to deal with these cases without even so much as a dental chair. The teams were forced to work with the patients in a low-backed, upright chair with another one behind it to prop up the dentist’s knee.
Nonetheless, the students raved about the ease, cooperation and gratitude of the Haitian patients.
“They would come in their Sunday’s best, black pants, nice shoes, or school uniforms color coded in accordance with their grade level, actually happy to see us,” said senior Francis Mecadon. “When I was performing some of the hardest extractions, they would have no reaction – I was floored by this.”
Once their operations were finished, the patients would sometimes sing songs to the students in order to show their appreciation.
The students expressed their initial anxiety about being in a foreign country without some of the basic amenities Americans are used to having. Everyday accommodations included cold showers, mosquitoes and excruciating travel on dirt roads.
Gianquinto added, “Sometimes I thought Sister Ann [their driver] was a former rally racer by the way that she drove.”
To the volunteers, the self-gratification of relieving someone’s pain overrides any of the sacrifices made.
“From the moment you enter dental school, you realize you have a responsibility to humanity as a healthcare professional,” said one senior.
In a country where a person knocks his tooth out with a rock because there is no other way to alleviate his pain, the provision of dental care can make a significant difference.
“You people risk your lives to come down to this country and help my people, and I love you for it,.” a translator named Wilford told the students.
“This group has been the most cohesive group we’ve ever worked with,” said Dr. Allen Fielding, who has accompanied the trip for the past seven years. “We administered treatment to an average of 150-180 patients a day, performing anywhere from one to four extractions per patient.”
A donation of five operating dental chairs proved enormously helpful. The Student Council’s fund-raisers were so successful that they collected an additional $1,000 for two “Happy Houses,” or homes donated to a local village.
“The experience was more than rewarding,” said Gianquinto.
Mecadon said, “Everyone should try to have an experience like this. … Everyone should strive to do something different or be challenged everyday because it makes you feel more alive.”
Mecadon was so moved by the trip that he left all of his suitcases and belonging to the Haitians and returned home in his scrubs.
Erin Cusack can be reached at email@example.com.