Students at School of Dentistry provide care for Haitians in need
Photo by Janele Gibson
Senior David Lewis, working with volunteer Ted Ferry, performs an extraction.
In what has become an annual mission to alleviate the physical suffering of the poor and disadvantaged, this February, 11 third- and fourth-year students and two professors from the School of Dentistry will spend a week in Jeremie, Haiti, providing free dental care to residents of the surrounding villages.
As one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti struggles with short life expectancy, stagnant population growth and excessive mortality due to AIDS. According to the Haitian Health Foundation, people in Jeremie (in the western part of the country) depend mostly on farming and charcoal production for their living, make an average of $90 to $300 per year and have little access to health care.
“This trip is often the only chance these Haitians have to see a dentist and alleviate their dental pain,” said David Lewis, a dentistry senior and president of the Temple Dental Student Council, who will be making his second trip to the region next month.
Since 1997, Temple faculty, students and alumni have been working in this area with the Haitian Health Foundation, an organization created at the behest of Mother Teresa. The nurse-run foundation, started in the 1980s by Dental School graduate Jeremiah Lowney, provides year-round medical and dental care to indigent people in the region, and supplies guest rooms for the Temple students. But the village accommodations are nothing like what the students are used to at home.
“The trips to the remote villages are over virtually nonexistent roads in four-wheel-drive vehicles, and the villages offer no amenities, not even electricity and running water,” said Bonnie Graham, senior administrator at the Dental School. “But the camaraderie is unbeatable, and the experience is life-changing.”
Students, who still want to make the trip despite the conditions, must further demonstrate their commitment to the difficult mission by writing a paper outlining why they want to go. The final selection is made by a committee made up of faculty and students, many who have gone on the trip in the past. The selection process ensures that the participants understand that the required vaccines, immunizations and anti-malarial pills, which themselves often lead to sickness, are only the beginning of a hard but rewarding experience.
“Healthcare professionals have a social responsibility to give back to society. These students learn firsthand the importance of serving populations who need them,” said R. Ivan Lugo, associate dean of the Dental School, who has traveled to Ecuador and Haiti several times during his career at Temple.
Students must also forgo hopes of any emergency medical care for themselves while there because the only hospital facility is located in the Haitian Foundation compound and lacks many of the facilities that Americans have come to expect.
“You have to be cautious not to slip and fall … but it’s worth it because the experience changes you. You want to go back and donate for the rest of your life,” says senior Janele Gibson, who made the trip to Haiti last year.
Throughout the year, the students organize several fund-raisers to come up with the $20,000 needed to pay for the team’s air travel, lodging, food, vaccines and dental supplies. Donations from Temple’s student government and organizations like Omicron Kappa Upsilon National Dental Honor Society, the Xi Psi Phi dental fraternity and University Housing (Summit Park Apartments) go a long way to reduce the burden, but students still normally pay anywhere from $500 to $1,000 out of their own pockets to make up the difference.
Despite the personal expense, this year’s group is determined to do more. The Temple students will bring a check for $500 so that the Haitian Health Foundation can build one of its “Happy Houses,” which will be donated to a village family. The waiting list for these accommodations is long because most of the villagers currently sleep in shifts in 6- by 8-foot houses with concrete floors.
Mobile dental chairs and electric generators must also be flown in from the United States and carried to the villages. Once their all-terrain vehicles reach the point where they can no longer travel safely, the students and program volunteers must transport these and other supplies themselves either on their backs or strapped to mules through rivers and up the sides of mountains.
The travelers then work from first light until the sun goes down to service the many villagers who began lining up the day before. The sun provides only minimal lighting for them to work, and the usual amenities such as X-rays and suction are not available.
“In the course of a week, an outreach team may administer treatment to close to 1,000 Haitians,” said Matthew Johnston, a senior dental student and one of the leaders of the upcoming trip.
The group treats all sorts of ailments, from cavities to fractured teeth. In the United States, these problems often bring short-term discomfort to the patient. But according to Lewis, Haitian villagers have been known to knock out their teeth with rocks to stop the pain.
Assistant professor of pediatric dentistry Edith Jones, who works with another Dental School graduate, Bob Zimmerman, and Christian missionary Brent Hambrick to bring dental care to disadvantaged countries, knows firsthand the conditions that the teams face in Haiti. Having just returned from taking three dental students to Honduras in November, Jones said her group could not have done the amount of treatments without the students’ help.
“We saw over 300 patients a day. Our students did more in five days than in six months at the dental clinic here. With limited resources, we were able to provide high-quality work,” said Jones, who said the effort is worth all of the sacrifice and time.
“One boy came to see our group with a cleft palate. The charity we worked with took the boy to a hospital and paid for the surgery to repair his deformity. One of the Honduran dentists sent me a picture taken after the boy’s first surgery. You can only imagine how this will change his life,” Jones said.
- By Tory Harris