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Spring Break – Outreach in Incredible Places

April 11, 2012

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Raya Abu-Zahra and Jami Ballantine are the D2 reps of the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry-U of M Student Chapter, who find much love and joy volunteering.   This is their recounting of a Spring Break outreach trip they took to Guatemala.

On an ordinary fall semester morning, Dr. Mark Berkman was lecturing away on orthodontic anchorage, good times! Midway through the lecture, he switched gears and started discussing a wonderful volunteer experience he once had in Guatemala with a nonprofit organization called Dentistry For All (DFA). This organization annually provides dental services to several locations in Guatemala where there is a lack of access to care. Although we cannot compare it to other mission trip organizations, the commitment to quality and high standards and their genuine care and compassion in caring for the underserved makes it a quintessential organization that we were privileged to be a part of. Two DFA directors we met on the trip were Dr. Shane Fisher, full-time clinical faculty at the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, and Dr. Brad Krusky, a practicing pediatric dentist in Calgary who completed his pediatric residency here at UMSOD.

Dr. Berkman shared with us his pictures and stories, and encouraged our class to consider attending a trip with DFA. The trip overview fell in line with our growing interest in pediatric dentistry and public health.  What can we say?  We were hooked.  From that point on, things moved very quickly.  We had support from the school and acceptance from the DFA directors and were on our way to have the privileged opportunity to volunteer over spring break and provide dental services for underserved communities in Guatemala City.

Our departure date quickly arrived and we were off to Guatemala! Many thoughts of anticipation had crossed our minds. We were about to travel to a country neither of us had been to, and meet up with 18 strangers from different regions of the U.S. and Canada. Upon arrival, we were accompanied by volunteer general dentists, pediatric dentists, dental hygienists, dental assistants, as well as non-dental volunteers who would help with sterilization and equipment set-up. We quickly found out that many of them knew each other either from dental practice, residency programs, or previous trips. It was natural to think that we were “outsiders” at first, but everyone greeted us like long-lost friends and treated us like family.  After thinking about all the ways in how to spend spring break this year, it was clear to us we definitely made the right choice.

The week began at Camino Seguro (Safe Passage), located in Central America’s largest and most toxic landfill, the Guatemala City Garbage Dump (more info here). After watching a documentary highlighting the difficult conditions the members of this community have lived in for generations, we were eager to head on over the next morning. It was these residents whose children we were going to treat.

The first working day finally arrived, and our mornings began at 5:15 a.m. in hopes to beat the heavy traffic.  Despite our early departures, our daily commute from Antigua took about two hours due to the endless highway traffic! An eager, yet patient line of children and their parents would await us bright and early upon our arrival. In Camino Seguro, there were six dental chairs along with one dental hygiene chair set up in a recreational facility. Patients were seen on a first come-first serve basis and would often wait for hours. Midway through the week we relocated our clinic to Mildred’s Elementary School, with a similar setup as Camino Seguro, except this time the dental/dental hygiene chairs and sterilization equipment were divided among four classrooms.

While it may have seemed odd at first that we were the only dental students on the trip, never once did we feel out of place. In fact, Dr. Fisher, the pediatric dentist we primarily worked with during the week was very pleased with our clinical abilities. We asked him towards the end of the trip how he felt about our skills, he immediately replied “Excellent. You both have exceeded my expectations, especially as D2’s, and I think it has to do with your Michigan education.” Go Blue!

Every night after clinic we would have a “Roses and Thorns” session, where everyone took a turn to describe one good thing that happened that day (rose), and a low moment they had to deal with (thorn). A mix of happy and heartfelt emotions circulated around the room as everyone shared their stories.

Raya’s “rose”: I remember dedicating a particularly memorable rose one night to Dr. Fisher and his impressive demonstration of the “Tell-Show-Do,” technique.  This technique is generally done before any procedure with a child to familiarize him/her with some instruments about to be used. It also is fun because one explores the air/water syringe, suction, etc with the child to show that it is “Muy facil!” (Very easy!) Performing this technique one afternoon on an adorable 7 year-old girl was an incredible moment. After doing so, she smiled and was ready to sit down and proceed.  When it came time to insert the anesthetic needle however, she suddenly panicked. I reassured her that everything would be okay, but, unfortunately, she could not overcome this fear. Dr. Fisher overheard and walked over to act firm. He told her that this needed to be done, and asked if she wanted him or myself to do the injection. She instantly grabbed my arm and shouted, “Solamente ella!!” (Only her!!) What a heartfelt moment! This turning point reassured me that while I initially had trouble convincing her it would be quick and easy, the “Tell-Show-Do” technique at the beginning allowed me to have a one-on-one bonding moment, in order to build good patient rapport and a sense of trust.  The rest of the appointment went smoothly, and to top it off, she gave me a big hug and kiss on the cheek at the end. I could not have been more thrilled with this successful experience! Thanks again Dr. Fisher!

There were mostly “roses”, and rarely was there ever a “thorn” to the day.  Our most memorable thorn, sadly enough, was dedicated to our last working day when we packed up all the dental supplies and stored them for the next group to take over. Time had gone by so fast and we were sorry that the reasons we came to Guatemala came to an end.  Reality had kicked in and we knew break was almost over; and although home will always be home, we did not want to leave this wonderful group of people we had considered family by then!

The good memories we have of the trip are numerous.  It is difficult to give our experiences full justice in a way that can be wholly appreciated by others.  The trip challenged us in so many ways, but truly was one of the best experiences we could have hoped for.  Sharing this experience with like-minded individuals who find the joy of taking time off from their personal lives to dedicate it to treating underserved individuals and impoverished communities was nothing short of incredible.   We strongly encourage anyone who is interested to volunteer for DFA, or seek out similar opportunities.  The memories, lessons, and friendships we gained will stay with us forever.

To see more pictures of their trip, check out the University of Michigan School of Dentistry’s Flickr site at :

One Comment
  1. Peter Ballantine permalink
    April 12, 2012 9:33 pm

    What a fantastic and rewarding experience for all involved. The people of Guatemala were so lucky to have such wonderful and excellent care provided for them.

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