Three local dentists recently returned from a trip to South America, where they went to remote jungle villages and worked on the teeth of the indigenous tribes.
Doctors Nekky Jamal, Dacre Hamilton and Erik Johnson said people in those areas don’t have easy access to dental care, so the team made the trip to ply their trade and give the mouths of the villagers a new chance at life.
“We were gone for a couple weeks; we went to the highlands of Ecuador and also to the Amazon in Ecuador and we provided dental care to over 500 people that desperately needed our help,” said Jamal.
The Lloydminster dentists, who all work at Wayside Dental Centre, paid out of pocket to make the trip, which Jamal organized after going there on a scouting mission in December.
Five other dentists outside of Lloydminster also went down to Ecuador, along with 15 helpers and volunteers, who spent 13 days going from village to village to help out.
Hamilton, who’s been on two such trips, said he and Johnson got on board after taking to Jamal and realizing the worth of such a cause.
“We thought it was something that was worthwhile and a good use of our time,” said Hamilton. “A way to give back to people who certainly aren’t born into fortunate situations like we are here in Canada.”
Johnson echoed this sentiment, saying it’s important to help people in the under-serviced areas of the world.
“Being able to help out people that wouldn’t normally get treatment—they have lots of access to care barriers there, be it distance from a major city or just time to get to see a healthcare provider,” Johnson said.
“I think that’s the biggest thing, when we can actually physically go to those places that are under-serviced and help support them.”
The group did mostly cleanings, fillings and extractions and also taught their patients about simple proper dental hygiene like how to brush and floss.
“This is my sixth trip so six years; every year I go on a dental trip,” said Jamal, who’s made work trips to other places like Guatemala and Nicaragua.
Jamal is involved with a charity out of Edmonton called Change for Children that also goes to countries like Nicaragua to drill water wells for locals, and after noticing the lack of dental care there, he decided to make yearly pilgrimages south of the equator to work on teeth.
He said in many cases pop, is cheaper than water in these countries, so the people drink Coke and Pepsi instead of water, which is not only less healthy, but tends to rot teeth.
When asked why pop is so cheap in these countries Jamal smiled and said, “Ask Coke and Pepsi —you can ask them— for under a buck you can get a three litre of pop.”
Whatever Coke and Pepsi’s reasons may be, the fact is it’s the truth, so the Border City dentists pack up their tools and try to help fix the resulting problems.
“We bring all of our equipment with us; we set up and take it down each day,” he said.
“We carry all of our stuff in bins and usually we’re working out of community centres and schools.”
Sometimes the dentists don’t even have these modest facilities to work out of, like when the group went to a remote village on the Amazon that could only be reached by a five hour boat ride down the river.
He said all of the houses in the village were on stilts to protect against flooding from the river, so the team set up shop underneath one of them and worked, more or less, in the open air.
“There were chickens beside us, then we found a pallet and we laid all of our instruments out on a pallet,” said Jamal,
“We had six or seven tree stumps, and the patients just sat on tree stumps, and we pulled their teeth on tree stumps, and right amongst all the farm animals—it was quite interesting.”
Such an operation might come with sanitation risks, but the doctors do their best to keep everything clean by bringing pressure pot sterilizers and their own disinfectants so they can keep everything as clean as possible.
There are also cultural differences that can make things difficult, which the dentists found out when they arrived at a Quechua community wary of having teeth pulled because they believed their teeth were part of them and they wanted to remain whole.
Jamal said no matter how bad some of the dental infections were in some of the villagers, they were still really hesitant about having their teeth extracted.
“Some people realized that that was the source of their pain, but some people believed there were other reasons—not that it was their teeth that was causing their mouth pain—and so it was difficult because we had a translator from English to Spanish, and also Spanish to the indigenous language,” he said, pointing out the communication barriers.
“So it was tricky communicating with everyone but we wanted everyone to make sure that they could make an informed decision on what they wanted to do.”
Some of the most heart breaking cases for Jamal involved younger girls with bad cavities across the fronts of their teeth.
He knows eventually they’ll have to get married and make lives for themselves, and the cosmetic damage could be something that might stand in the way of a normal life.
The group does its best to save the front teeth of young people and to them, it really shows how much people in countries like Canada take having a smile for granted.
“They’re incredibly happy, but like I said before, a lot of them are nervous because they don’t know what we do—but once people realize we’re here to help and we’re here to get rid of pain, everyone is really receptive,” he said.
The Wayside Dental Centre team said it would like to thank its Border City patients who often take it upon themselves to bring in donations to put toward the trips.
“We put it toward the project to help buy tools and supplies that are needed to get treatments—I can’t thank my patients enough and I feel like I have tremendous support from this community.”