It wasn’t until my final day in Guatemala that I knew I wanted to go back.
In March and April of this year, I was lucky enough to get to head down to Guatemala with two of my then classmates at the University of Illinois (UIC) at Chicago College of Dentistry. Andrea Klein, Anuja Kothari and I spent five weeks in this Central American country as an international rotation experience just before we graduated in May. It was an amazing experience. We’re very thankful to Henry Schein Cares for their role in helping make our trip possible. Here’s our story:
We arrived in Guatemala the last week in March. This week is also known as Semana Santa, the Guatemalan Holy Week. We did not have clinic responsibilities during this week, as a lot of the country closes down to celebrate. So, we spent the first week in the city of Antigua. Antigua is a popular tourist destination, especially during Semana Santa. Religious processions dominate the streets of Santigua at all hours of the day and night. Our week there allowed us to view a lot of the processions, witness the assembly of many elaborate alfombras (carpets), and take a day trip to Pacaya, the most active Central American volcano over the past 300 years.
Our next four weeks were spent up in the Guatemalan mountains, near Lake Atitlán. Lake Atitlan is often hailed as the most beautiful lake in the world. We stayed in a town called Panajachel, on the northern side of Atitlán. This placed us just fourty five minutes from the clinic where we worked.
Our clinic was the Salud y Paz clinic in Camanchaj. Salud y Paz was originally founded in 2001. The project centers around providing education and healthcare to the underserved people of Guatemala. Salud y Paz is a joint project of the International Hands in Service, the Guatemalan Methodist Church, and the United Methodist Church of the United States.
The patients we saw at the Camanchaj Salud y Paz clinic were all students at the adjoining Susanna Welsley School. This school has three classrooms; one pre-kindergarten, one kindergarten, and one first grade. Our “little niños” ranged from four to eight years old.
We saw a total of fourty seven adorable boys and girls. Only two of them were cavity free, and 32% of the teeth we saw had cavities. Believe it or not, this is an improvement from three years ago; when UIC first sent dental students down to Guatemala. In 2011, all of the children at Salud y Paz and 45% of all teeth had cavities. During our four weeks in clinic, we worked to restore all of the teeth that we could, performed pulpotomies where indicated, and extracted non-restorable teeth. By the time that we left, twenty one of our niños had all of their work completed.
The Henry Schein Cares Foundation was instrumental in making the care we provided possible. They generously donated many of the items that we needed in clinic. We made good use of the gloves, masks, gauze, flouride, and other supplies that they provided. When they weren’t crying in our chairs, our little niños were very appreciative of our efforts, which they ended up showing on our last day.
Unbeknownst to us, the children had been working on homemade thank you cards. At lunchtime on our last day, we were brought out to the dirt playground and showered with colorful cards, strong hugs, and a few teary eyes. As I squatted to the ground with a dozen cards in my hand and a half dozen niños hanging from my neck, I knew I had to come back.
The entire experience was unforgettable. Finding out on the last day how much we were appreciated made it clear that a return trip would be necessary someday. Anuja, Andrea and I are all currently completing residency programs; however we expect to return to Guatemala when an opportunity presents itself.
Ben Youel, DDS