Saving smiles in Nicaragua
They don’t teach you how to practice dentistry in a Tommy Bahama beach chair, make deals with the local “Godfather” and perform magic tricks in the jungle in dental school but these skills are good to know if you’re providing dental services in Nicaragua.
Drs. William Couch and Torrey Hammond of Cameron Park, seven pre-dental students from Brigham Young University, dental school applicant Jared Roberts and University of California, San Francisco, dental student Jason Couch, paired with Hal Young, president and founder of the Worldwide Child Relief Foundation, to offer dental services to 100 orphans at the Venganos Tu Reino children’s orphanage near Leon, Nicaragua.
In two days, dentists and students saw more than 80 patients and performed 145 operations.
Roberts, the team leader, waded through the regulations of two countries while organizing the student volunteers and travel plans.
Hammond, 38, set up the dental clinic in an orphanage dorm room.
Couch, 53, was in charge of the oral hygiene presentations.
Young, 62, and his foundation sponsored the team and interfaced with the surrounding village.
Student volunteers David Stafford, Chad Christiansen, Dustin Peterson, Spencer DeSanti, Ryan Leininger and Kasey Hendricks assisted the dentists.
They brought laptops to digitize X-rays for diagnosis, Tommy Bahama chairs from a discount store to use as dental chairs, dental tools, a compressor to run the drills, cards and pictures for the orphans from Couch and Hammond’s younger patients and a lot of goodwill.
The first morning started with a challenge.
“We were all set up in an empty dorm room at the orphanage within an hour,” said Couch. “But the compressor we brought blew up.”
There was no place in the impoverished village to buy a replacement, so while Couch dazzled the children with an oral hygiene presentation, complete with magic tricks, Young contacted the local godfather.
The man, notorious for being difficult to work with, refused to loan his compressor until he realized the benefits to his own children. Free dental work, which the visiting dentists were happy to perform, secured the compressor and the game was on.
“The kids were laughing and having a lot of fun during the oral hygiene presentation,” said Roberts. Using a puppet with huge teeth, children were shown how to brush. They put on pillowcases to be teeth while dentists pulled ropes between them to illustrate how to floss.
“They were excited about our being there, but once they got into the chair they were a little apprehensive,” said Hammond. “But everyone got up with a smile. I think they were surprised that it wasn’t what they expected. They were amazing — grateful and no complaining.”
“We won them over with the magic tricks and then we numbed them,” joked Couch.
Most of the preadolescent and adolescent girls in the orphanage had never seen a dentist and had no idea what to expect. Children from the village near the orphanage and some adults were also treated.
“There was a lot of decay, especially on front teeth, so we did a lot of extractions on hopeless teeth and put sealants on molars,” said Couch. “It was really rewarding to save their smiles.”
Seventy-five percent of the work they did was to save teeth; 25 percent was extractions.
While the dentists and student volunteers worked with their young patients, Young and his assistant Mark Crawford, built a soccer field for the students, putting up basketball standards, giving out 250 notebooks and school supplies at the local high school and going house to house handing out dental hygiene kits. Young set up a program with a man from Leon to teach English to the students twice a week.
“Hal doesn’t speak a word of Spanish, either,” said Couch.
The team had an opportunity through their Nicaraguan liaison, pharmacist Mario Rivas, to visit a dental school in Leon. Dental students in Nicaragua go directly from high school to dental school, so the ready-to-graduate were younger than the American pre-dental students.
“They worked with us the last day and the dean of the school offered their facilities so we wouldn’t have to bring so much equipment next time,” said Roberts.
And there will be a next time.
“Torrey worked on a little girl and he wanted her to come back the next day. I carried her out to her grandfather to ask if they could come back. He had tears in his eyes and he was so grateful. That was the most powerful moment for me,” said Roberts.”This trip exceeded my expectations. Our pre-dental volunteers said they liked the hands-on experience and would do it again.”
“I have a deeper appreciation of what we have in America and of what I do as a dentist,” said Couch.
“I came home feeling that I received more than I gave,” said Hammond. “I saw a different way of living — people who are happy living without all our conveniences and who appreciate what little they have.”
Young is a former educator in the Mother Lode School District and a retired investment advisor. He and his family began visiting the orphans at Venganos Tu Reino in 2005, taking them supplies. Many of the orphans lost parents during the floods after Hurricane Mitch in 1996.
In 2006 the Young family formed the Worldwide Child Relief Foundation to benefit the orphans and the surrounding village. This is the first dental team the foundation was able to bring to Nicaragua.
“I really look forward to coming here,” said Young. “I have so much energy when I’m here. It brought tears to my eyes to finally be able to do this. We want to bring a dental team every two years and next year we want to bring in a team of orthopedic surgeons for children because there is a great need.”
Young is currently looking for orthopedic surgeons to make up next year’s team and funding to keep the enterprise going.