A local team of oral health professionals endured 12-hour days in Guatemalan heat and improvised on their feet to see patients who don’t have the luxury of getting regular dental checkups.
Dr. Dave Burwash, along with eight other local volunteers from his dental clinic and the Cranbrook/Kimberley area, recently returned from a two-week trip to the South American country, where they saw just over 500 patients in a couple different rural communities.
It was a stark juxtaposition of the gap between health care delivery services in First and Third World countries. Making a dental appointment and getting a cleaning is considered routine in Canada, but in rural Guatemala, that isn’t the case.
From bringing their own equipment to improvising patient workstations, the group carried out 800-1,000 tooth extractions and 100 dental cleanings spaced throughout a week of stops in different communities.
Every morning began with a chant and group hug before getting busy with patients who, in some cases, walked for a day to get dental work done. A mid-morning dance-off helped ease tensions, while evening beefs and bouquet—a group talk on what was good and what was bad about the day—helped with group dialogue.
Flying out of Calgary, the team flew into Guatemala City—the national capital—and drove for four hours up to Chisec, their first community of 5,000. The crew included the nine local volunteers and five translators who had to juggle translating English to Spanish and Spanish to Q’eqchi’—a local Mayan language.
For their first day of receiving patients, they set up in a local clinic that was built and funded by a local women’s co-operative that was greeted with much fanfare by the local mayor and radio media.
“It became sort of a carnival-like atmosphere,” Dr. Burwash said. “Local ice cream sellers came and sold ice cream, the women’s co-operative set up tubs with Gatorade and bottled water to sell to raise money and the women’s cooperative fed us.
“Their hospitality was unbelievable, they’re very proud of the food that they served us, it was all traditional, hand-cooked meals.”
The team worked from 7 a.m. till 5 p.m., seeing patients with all different kinds of oral health issues in close quarters and unrelenting heat, which added to an already high-stress situations.
“For those couple of days, the temperature was in the mid to high-30s, humidity was close to 100 per cent, we were working in non-air conditioned rooms, we didn’t have dental chairs, we had tables that we put shower curtains across and taped black garbage bags on the side for people to spit into,” said Dr. Burwash.
“That was how the hygienists did their scaling and cleaning, that’s how we did restorative work and that’s how we did extractions.
“Coming to Canada to that was kind of extreme. Some of the girls who, this was their first trip, had definite issues with just the overwhelming emotions.
You have lineups around the building and down the street of people wanting to come see us.”
Oral health in places like rural Guatemala can be a challenge, especially when there is a lack of clean drinking water and basic equipment like toothbrushes and toothpaste.
Problems that are a relatively easy fix in Canada, such as root canals, crowns and fillings, mostly ended up as tooth extractions for the Guatemalan patients.
However, the toughest challenge was working with children and trying to calm their fears of getting work done on their teeth.
“We had little one- and two-year-olds coming in with teeth that were so badly broken down, with pus oozing out, their parents begging us to take the teeth out and these kids are terrified,” Dr. Burwash said.
“We had no sedation, we couldn’t get freezing for these kids, because they’re thrashing about, they don’t want us to look at them, and their parents are begging us to do something.
“…You have to get the parent to hold the child still. When the child opens his or her mouth, you take the forceps, grab ahold of what’s left of the tooth—and that means nothing above the gum line—and you just give a quick pull and a twist, and you get it out of there.”
However, once the tooth was removed, Dr. Burwash said the children would be playing outside 10 minutes later showing off the prizes they got from the dental staff.
Another challenge was dealing with sterilizing the equipment in a manner that could keep up with demand. Dental equipment is specialized in the sense that a specific instrument is for a specific job, but once it was used, it would take about an hour to sterilize it.
While that specific instrument is being sterilized, there are patients that need to been worked on, said Dr. Burwash.
From Chisec, the team headed to Arbor Rubel Ho which is located deep in the jungle. Howler monkeys screamed as they roamed the canopy above the team, which worked out of a school and a nearby vacant building.
Just as in Chisec, they were warmly welcomed by the locals and served homemade meals from residents who invited the team right into their homes.
From Arbor Rubel Ho it was off to Saint Martas, where they worked in a school compound out of buildings that Dr. Burwash likened to 1800s frontier schools—a one-room classroom with the teacher at the front.
Again, they were welcomed with open arms by the local community with home-cooked meals along with Mayan hot chocolate, which was locally grown, roasted, and ground cacao with added spices.
Sherri Nelson, the head CDA (Certified Dental Assistant) of the team who works alongside Dr. Burwash in Cranbrook, said it’s always an eye opening experience, even though she’s been to Peru twice for the same reason.
“I think this one, we saw more kids, a lot more little kids, the really young ones. I remember seeing the younger ones, but this one, there was more bad teeth and lots of decay on the real, real young ones,” Nelson said.
“When you’re only three years old and you haven’t had teeth very long and they’re already rotten, that kind of seems to be what stands out more on this trip.”
The group traveled under the auspices of Kindness in Action, an Alberta-based charitable organization that works alongside grassroots organizations to provide oral health services in countries around the world.
The full group from Cranbrook included: Tierra Rodgers, Emily East, Caitlin Anselmo, Sherri Nelson, Sue Crawford, Alex Crawford, Dr. Kevin Shen, Yo-Wen Lo
Dr. David Burwash. The team also wishes to recognize Kyla Brass for her fund-raising contributions even though she couldn’t make it on the trip.
• The team brought back spices that they bought from the women’s cooperative in Chisec and are selling them in Cranbrook to raise money for their next trip. If anyone is interested, contact the Baker Hill Dental office at: 250-426-5865.