30 Years of Dental Volunteering: A Reflection
“For everyone to whom much is given, of him shall much be required.”
“Whoever is spared personal pain must feel himself called to help in
diminishing the pain of others.”
One of the above is a quote from the New Testament, the other is from one of the great minds and humanitarians of the 20th century. I am well aware that I may be preaching to the choir here, but whether actions are motivated by the sentiments embodied above or by other personal reasons, many dentists have heeded the call of those in pain and others join in the alleviation of dental suffering among the poor, first here in the United States, and then around the world.
This piece is a short synopsis of 30 years experience in relieving pain, and suffering and giving hope for a better tomorrow to my neighbors near and far. I was fortunate in many ways. Much was given to me both by my family and by my profession. What has been expected of me is not only to work directly with those in need but also to bring these opportunities to others, whether they are dental students or practitioners with many years experience.
My journey started with a seed that was planted sometime in my youth. My father was a general dentist in New York. He and a couple of his colleagues occasionally spoke about taking some sort of dental mission trip to Guatemala. Family responsibilities (I have 11 siblings) brought pause to those plans with worries of what if something happened to Dad? That seed was watered and fertilized by my good friend Lenny and particularly his wife Trish, who volunteered in Africa as part of her medical school electives. Just 2 years out of dental school, through a volunteer pamphlet published by the American Dental Association (ADA), I was introduced to the Catholic Medical Mission Board, which gave me entrée to a great part of my life.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I must admit that I was as interested as much in traveling as I was in doing good that first year and figured I could do both simultaneously. The unseen hand, divine intervention, fortune, luck—call it what you will—brought me to San Jose de Ocoa in the Dominican Republic into the welcoming arms of the Religious Hospitallers of St. Joseph. There for a month in the summer of 1982, I spent the mornings driving up the mountains with Sr. (Saint) Alice, doing oral surgery in the front room of block and wood homes. In the afternoons, I worked in the dilapidated hospital dental clinic using an old balky Concentrix handpiece, auto-cure composite (a challenge in the heat and humidity), and mixed amalgam with a mortar and pestle (known thanks to a much earlier conversation with my Dad). The experience was intoxicating. After that first trip, I returned to the University of Maryland, where I taught and gave a lunch-and-learn presentation, with several students asking if they could participate. With that, the Dominican Dental Mission Project was born.
Returning to Ocoa and surrounding villages in the central part of the country each summer thereafter, larger groups of students and dentists participated and our impact grew each year. Intervention came again in 1987, when I learned of two missions by the Haitian border sponsored near the Diocese of Rockville Centre, the Catholic diocese in which I grew up on Long Island. That year and every year since, we have been sending teams to El Cercado and Hondo Valle, a stone’s throw from the Haitian border. It was the people of Hondo Valle who have made the greatest impact on me over these years. One year they wrote, “Because the dentists come back every year, we know that God has not forgotten us.” To bring hope to the needy is perhaps the greatest gift of all.
My international experiences opened the door to be a charter member of the Dentistry Overseas Steering Committee, a joint project of the ADA and Health Volunteers Overseas. Over the ensuing years, the ADA has significantly developed its international volunteer footprint (https://internationalvolunteer.ada.org/). I have had the privilege of working in Vietnam, Guyana, Haiti, Jamaica, and Belize as part of this committee. I also had a major hand in writing the ADA’s international volunteer guide, a beacon for those who want to serve but do not know where or how to start.
The Dominican Dental Mission Project has changed a bit over the years. After 20 years of direction, I turned these responsibilities over to my good friend, Dr. Steven Pohlhaus, who happened to meet his wife, Jenny, a Dominican dentist, on the project. I get to go as just one of the volunteers (www.ada.org/news/6732.aspx). Over the entire 30 years, our teams of 550 volunteer dentists and students have brought surgical, restorative, prosthetic, and preventive services to more than 57,000 of the rural poor of the Dominican Republic, with an estimated value of over more than $10 million—all started as a result of a curiosity about other lands and a willingness to extend a helping hand.
The comment is often made that we don’t have to travel far to find the needy. As a member of the faculty at the new School of Dental Medicine at East Carolina University, I worked closely with ECU students at North Carolina Mission of Mercy Clinics, was the mentor for two students selected for the Schweitzer Fellowship Program, was the faculty coordinator for the North Carolina Baptist Men’s Dental Bus at the Greenville Community Shelter, and was the organizer for the dental activities at Project Homeless Connect before moving to Bluefield College in June 2013. I say this not to pat myself on the back, but to show that experiences in one area can be leveraged to similar projects in various locations both at home and abroad. Giving students and dentists an opportunity, showing the way, can only lead to greater fulfillment of the thoughts of both Luke and Schweitzer.
About the Author
Dr. Serio is currently dean at the Bluefield College School of Dental Medicine and founder and co-director of the Dominican Dental Mission Project.