On May 26th, 2016, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to embark on a two-week dental mission trip with Vida Volunteer, a non-profit organization that specializes in organizing pre-health trips for students interested in pursuing dentistry, medicine, or veterinary science.
Our mission trip served Costa Rica and Nicaragua, with dental clinic days held in Nicaragua on the beautiful island of Ometepe. Most of the undergraduate volunteers came from The University of Iowa, where they are pursuing careers in dentistry or medicine.
Dental Care in Nicaragua
The patients we saw in rural Nicaragua either had no access to health care or lacked the financial ability to regularly visit a dentist.
We set up clinics in two elementary schools and saw 190 patients. We saw a range of conditions, and the dentists performed cleanings, restorations, and extractions. We then spent time educating each patient about proper brushing and flossing techniques.
Donations from the Henry Schein Cares Foundation helped us supply basic dental necessities to our patients, including toothbrushes, toothpaste and dental floss.
One surprising takeaway from the experience was finding out that our patients actually brushed their teeth differently! I was naïve and assumed everyone in the world brushed their teeth in the same fashion. Yet, instead of brushing in a circular motion on all of our teeth like we do in the United States, they brush their teeth vertically in single strokes.
Being a Registered Dental Assistant, I was thrilled to be able to use my knowledge from working in dentistry to aid in whatever way possible. I loved being able to see an alternative side to dentistry in Nicaragua and compare the differences in how they practice compared to what it is like in the United States.
— Vida Volunteer (@VidaVolunteer) July 7, 2016
Public Health Education in Costa Rica
In Costa Rica, public health education was provided to local communities to encourage proper brushing technique, diet, and overall oral health. We met with families in their homes and saw a range of living conditions, from houses with running water and satellite TV, to those with tin roofs and dirt floors.
Despite the fact that elementary school through college is free in Costa Rica, many people did not have a higher level of education due to the restraint it puts on families. Children are viable assets to many families for helping prepare meals, watch after younger siblings, and help their parents with chores.
As volunteers, we led the conversation and obtained information about the families to get a picture of what their living conditions, diet, and exercise consisted of to help guide them in the right direction.
Vida Volunteer has set up a long-term commitment to all of communities we visited. They have volunteer trips to these communities at least 2-3 times a year to ensure that the people we treated have access to proper dental care routinely. This is what makes these medical and dental trips with Vida Volunteer so valuable.
— Vida Volunteer (@VidaVolunteer) July 11, 2016
Our two-week trip made an impact on the local community, but what truly makes a difference in benefiting the community’s health is visiting on a consistent basis. Vida Volunteer is slowly moving towards bettering people’s oral health; with each visit, there is less need for restorative care and more focus on preventative care.
The experiences I was able to have in Costa Rica and Nicaragua were truly unique and I am very grateful for Vida Volunteer for making it all possible and for the donations from the Henry Schein Cares Foundation.