Tufts University Team Completes Dental Mission Trip
Heidi Birnbaum Aaronson, DMD
A pick-up truck rumbled down the dirt path leading into the small village outside San Pedro de Macoris, Dominican Republic.
“Helado! Helado! (Ice cream! Ice cream!),” the truck’s occupants shouted.
The sweet pronouncement drew an immediate response as dozens of excited children, some wearing tattered shirts and pants three sizes too big, emerged from in and around faded pastel homes of tin and wood. Eager to greet the visitors, some wore nothing at all as they ran towards the truck with spoons in hand.
Ironically, the bearers of the sugary treats were dentists and dental students from Tufts University School of Dental Medicine in Boston, who traveled to the Caribbean nation on a dental mission trip this past April.
Organized by 2008 Tufts graduate and current faculty member Dr. Heidi Aaronson and sponsored by Procter & Gamble, the weeklong mission trip included stops at Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos (NPH) orphanage in San Pedro, five bateyes (villages) near the orphanage, and the Boston Red Sox Dominican Academy near Santo Domingo.
Aaronson, along with fellow Tufts faculty members Drs. Gerard Kugel, Paul Trombly and David Paul, and Tufts graduate Dr. Zuzana Mendez (International Class of 2008), supervised current Tufts students and Alpha Omega Dental Fraternity members Jason Slomovitz, Michael Butera, Samir Patel, and Lisa Gonzalez, as well as Akindeko Obebe, a fourth-year student at Kornberg School of Dental Medicine at Temple University in Philadelphia.
“I am exceptionally proud of the Tufts faculty and students. They could have been on vacation but instead they offered their skills and time to help others,” said Kugel, editor-in-chief of Inside Dentistry and associate dean of research at Tufts.
Over the course of the week, the dentists and dental students screened more than 400 patients, performing extractions, prophylaxes, restorations, and endodontic and fluoride treatments.
The surprise ice cream delivery, which included a stop at the orphanage, was a parting gift from the Boston-based group—a way of treating the locals after a week of dental treatments that had been provided to the more than 200 people living without clean water, latrines, or electricity in poor, dilapidated villages that have been all but forgotten by the Dominican government.
Less than a mile down the road is Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos, home to more than 170 orphans. NPH opened in 2003, the seventh of nine orphanages around Latin America and the Caribbean created by NPH International since 1954. With the aid of international donations over the past 5 years, the Dominican orphanage has been able to improve its facilities with the addition of a schoolhouse, a water purification plant, and a medical clinic.
Inside the newly built medical facility is a one-room dental clinic with two chairs, a portable dental unit with a single electric handpiece, a well-stocked supply closet, and an autoclave. A portion of the money donated by Procter & Gamble for the mission trip was used to purchase necessary materials and equipment for the clinic. With some money remaining, the group plans to purchase other supplies for the clinic, which may include a new autoclave, an ultrasonic scaler, another portable delivery unit, and/or a digital X-ray system.
Even with a well-equipped clinic, no work can be done without dentists volunteering their time to treat the children, who have not had regular access to dental care. A group of dentists from Switzerland visited the clinic earlier in the year and created a charting system for the children, which are updated as dental teams from around the world visit the clinic. The charting system also provides visiting dentists with each child’s medical and dental history, including whether the children are HIV-positive, diabetic, or have special needs.
The children at the orphanage were brought to the clinic house-by-house, in groups of 15. Each child was screened, their chart was updated, and they were given any necessary treatments.
“These are such well-behaved kids!” noted Kugel, as he prepared to screen 5-year-old Alexander.
NPH director Kieran Rigney allowed the Tufts group to treat local patients from outside the walls of the orphanage at the indoor clinic, where working conditions are far better than in the sun-baked, mosquito-ridden villages. This generous offer allowed more patients to be treated, with a reduced likelihood of infection and other complications from the less sanitary conditions of an outdoor setting.
On the first day of the trip, the group loaded into their 12-passenger van (which was donated by Avis Rental Cars) and drove north to Boca Chica to visit the Red Sox Dominican Academy. Home to 35 young baseball players between the ages of 16 and 20, the Academy prepares players signed by the Red Sox for a major league career with daily baseball training and schooling, including English classes.
According to Eddie Romero, the coordinator of Latin American Operations, none of the players had had any dental evaluations in his 4 years with the Academy. Without dental insurance or the resources to pay for normal dental care, the players relied on the mission team to address as many dental problems as possible during their short visit.
Using the trainer’s office as a makeshift exam room, each student-dentist pair completed a detailed medical history and dental chart, including an extensive treatment plan, for each player. Those with urgent dental needs, including abscesses, broken teeth, and advanced dental caries, were taken to the clinic at the orphanage for treatment. The rest of the players received fluoride treatments and will receive further treatment during future visits by the group.
“I don’t have words of gratitude enough to thank you, not only for what you did with our players, but as a Dominican citizen that I am,” wrote Javier Hernandez, an assistant in the player development department, in an e-mail after the trip. “The job you guys did in the orphanage was really humanitarian, getting dental care for kids that probably will never have a chance to visit a dentist. For this I will be ever grateful.”
Later that afternoon, as half the group began treatment on the 170 children at the orphanage, the rest of the dental team visited four different villages near NPH. As word spread around the village about the presence of dentists from America, people started lining up to have their dental problems addressed.
With conditions ranging from impacted third molars to early childhood caries to severe periodontal disease, patients were given tickets with a date and time to be bussed over to the clinic for treatment. No patient seeking treatment was turned away, which resulted in working days that lasted from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.
The group did finish early one day, but used the extra time to visit a fifth village to pick up anyone else who needed dental issues addressed. Within 2 minutes of pulling into the village, 10 locals had jumped into the truck to head over to the clinic.
Through donations from several dental manufacturers and Tufts University Dental School, a wide range of treatments were possible, including Ketac Nano restorations, endodontic treatment, anterior esthetic restorations, extractions, and CavitySeal fluoride treatments. In addition, every patient received an Oral-B® toothbrush, Crest® toothpaste, and the peace of mind of knowing their immediate dental needs had been addressed.
The group from Tufts is already busy planning their next trip in the hopes of continuing to brighten smiles and lives in the Dominican Republic.
The Tufts University Mission Team would like to thank 3M ESPE, Procter& Gamble, Benco Dental, Bien Air, and Cetylite Industries for their material donations which made so manytreatments possible.
For more information or to donate to NuestrosPequeños Hermanos International, visit https://www.nph.org.
About the Author
Heidi Birnbaum Aaronson, DMD
Faculty Tufts University School of Dental Medicine