The image of one 5-year-old patient remains particularly vivid for Joshua Bresler, DEN ’03, pediatric dentist and Temple adjunct assistant professor of pediatric dentistry. “He had an infected tooth that had been neglected for too long, and his entire face was badly swollen,” Bresler recalls. “He also had a fistula on his cheek.”
It is not the kind of problem that Bresler normally would encounter in his Philadelphia-area office. And it is not what comes to mind when most of us consider our own routine dental health. The occasional filling, the less-frequent crown or bridge and the no-longer-so-dreaded root canal are just more
But such sights are common in developing nations such as Haiti, where Bresler treated that suffering boy. According to the World Health Organization,
“The Third World is the only place on Earth where people can actually die from dental disease,” Jeremiah Lowney Jr., DEN ’61, says. “Decaying teeth
A host of private foundations are tackling the issue—and Kornberg School of Dentistry graduates are rising to the challenge by participating as volunteers around the world. Not only do these dentists donate their services, they also often pay their own expenses while forfeiting revenue back home for weeks at a time.
Lowney is an extraordinary example. Twenty-nine years ago, the Norwich, Conn.-based orthodontist started the Haitian Health Foundation (HHF) after visiting the country as the only dentist in a volunteer group sponsored by his local church. Coming “from one of America’s wealthiest states to the poorest country in the Western hemisphere,” Lowney says he was so struck by the poverty, he returned to Port-au-Prince three months later.
After a few years of working for weeks at a time in the Haitian capital, he relocated to Jérémie, a remote city on the far western part of the island, at the request of Mother Teresa, who was setting up an outpost there. These days, HHF operates out of the 27,000-square-foot poured concrete clinic that Lowney and his wife opened in Jérémie in 1988. A staff of physicians, nurses and other healthcare
|Jeremiah Lowney Jr., DEN ’61, founded the Haitian Health Foundation, which now operates an outpatient clinic in Jérémie, Haiti.|
A Family Affair
Typically, Joshua and his contingent set out to visit two villages a day, armed with a beach chair and a few dental tools. They arrive to find dozens of people—some of whom have walked for days—waiting to be treated.
“Normally, there are only a few dentists covering the entire region,” Bresler says, “so there’s really no dental maintenance to speak of. There are no toothbrushes or toothpaste, and that’s compounded by a very poor diet, of which the main source of calories comes from chewing sugar cane.”
According to Bresler, the group performs thousands of extractions in a single five-day stint. “Their teeth are in terrible shape, with multiple infections and abscesses,” Bresler says. “Sometimes, all 32 teeth have decayed down to the gum line, and we numb them and take out their teeth.
“In America, we have one tooth removed and we worry about getting an implant or a bridge,” he adds. “That’s not an option here. They’re happy just to be
Before departing a village, the group reviews home care and distributes the cases of toothbrushes and toothpaste the volunteers have brought with them.
Leaving Knowledge Behind
He remembers the same problems when he treated Philadelphia children in need as a dental student at Temple. “Seeing poor dental health day in and day out made me realize that everyone deserves equally good treatment,” he says.
Marc Rothman, DEN ’88, also nurtures a new and better generation of dental workers. His work with Alpha Omega International Dental Fraternity and the Global Oral Health Initiative led him to Jewish Healthcare International (JHI) in Atlanta. As a JHI board member, Rothman worked to create a dental center of excellence at Bikur Holim, a Jewish hospital in Riga, Latvia.
“The existing dental center had no sterilization protocol in place, and a lot of other systems were similarly haphazard,” Rothman says. “During the past 10 years, we’ve implemented new systems of treatment planning, infection control, pathology recognition, periodontics and endodontics, dental implantology and advanced surgical procedures.” Now, he adds, “these practitioners are some of the most capable dentists I know.”
In addition to the importance of dentistry to overall health, Rothman points out another side of dental neglect: the impact on psychological health and even on prosperity. “It can be really hard for a person with poor dentition—broken, misaligned, badly stained teeth—to be accepted into and comfortable with normal society, no matter how good their general hygiene is or how intelligent and
Removing Stigmas, Renewing Lives
The same fate awaits those born with similar defects in areas of Venezuela, where Laurence Stone, DEN ’73, worked with San Francisco-based Rotaplast International Inc. to assist plastic surgeons in correcting cleft palates and cleft lips. “They see it as a sin coming back to the family,” Stone says.
According to Stone, the incidence of clefts in South America is approximately six times higher than it is in the U.S. The primary causes for clefts, he adds, are
During his first visit to Venezuela, Stone was the only dentist on a team of 28 that included plastic surgeons, anesthesiologists and nurses. They performed 110 procedures on 81 patients — nearly $500,000 in services. “It’s so moving to see the gratitude of the families,” he says. “These are life-changing surgeries.”
The experience has been eye-opening for Stone. “These are the not kinds of things that a general dentist is normally involved in,” he says. “I saw more abnormal dental conditions in Venezuela than I have
That’s why Belchinsky, at 71 years old, currently is looking for another overseas volunteer opportunity. “I still remember what one of my Temple professors
JoAnn Greco is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer whose work has been published in National Geographic Traveler, The Washington Post, Art & Antiques, Pennsylvania Gazette and more.