The Department of Dental Hygiene at Northern Arizona University (NAU) offers students the opportunity to travel abroad and provide dental hygiene services to communities in need. For the past four years, NAU has worked with an organization called Los Médicos Voladores (“The Flying Doctors”) (LMV), a non-profit committed to providing health education and health care to underserved communities in Central and South America.
When I signed up to lead three students on a trip to Guatemala, I was excited yet nervous.
Volunteering as an accompanying faculty member, this would be my first international public service trip and I would be responsible for three young adults. I never imagined I would return with endless memories of the patients we helped or the cultural experiences we absorbed. It’s been a few weeks since I’ve returned from Guatemala, but the trip still dominates my thoughts.
My students and I traveled with an organization called Los Médicos Voladores (“The Flying Doctors”). They have been providing medical services to rural areas in Latin America since 1975 and have been working with NAU for the past four years.
After arriving in Antiqua, Guatemala, we traveled to Quetzaltenango (Xela), Guatemala. The city had modern amenities, but the outlying rural areas lacked basic luxuries. We worked alongside medical students, physical therapists, primary care professionals, and other volunteers to provide care to the residents of Xela.
The clinic we worked out of had a makeshift dental hygiene room with three dental chairs. The room had no provider seating, sterilization, suction, water, or lighting capabilities. We improvised by standing and using a toaster oven to sterilize instruments, bowls for patients to spit into, bottled water, and head lamps to see.
It all worked out well because over 4.5 days, were able to provide dental hygiene care to 285 patients (135 more than last year) and placed 109 sealants!
Many patients hadn’t seen a dental professional in years and we encountered heavy, tenacious calculus, stain, and plaque, and rampant decay regularly. While we couldn’t treat the decay, we did remove all deposits and provided fluoride varnish to help prevent future decay. All posterior molars and premolars without decay were sealed.
Although language was sometimes a barrier, thankfully two of my students spoke Spanish. They were able to give oral care instructions along with giveaway bags of toothbrush, toothpaste, and floss.
The patients were so grateful for our help and we were offered many blessings while we worked.
I have already voiced interest in returning to Xela next year with students. What I assumed would be a fun, easy trip turned into an experience I will treasure forever. It helped me appreciate different cultures more, gave me a deep gratitude for the life and opportunities I have, and continues to fuel my desire to help others.
I have a degree in public health and am the Public Health Coordinator for my department, but this trip gave me a real understanding of what I should strive for with my local public health projects.
No matter how small you think your project is, it will have a positive impact on the community.
Sometimes providing whatever you can is enough to change someone’s health outcomes.
I am grateful to the Henry Schein Cares Foundation for donating the supplies we needed to provide care for the Xela community. We could not have done it without your generosity!