Q&A: Dentists take their skills overseas

Volunteer: Dr. Charlie Clark, left, treats a patient during his 2013 visit to Guatemala.

Volunteer: Dr. Charlie Clark, left, treats a patient during his 2013 visit to Guatemala.

With a valuable set of portable skills, dentists are empowered to meet oral health needs all over the world, including countries where dental care access is limited.

The ADA New Dentist News spoke with two dentists who have made international volunteer work part of their lives.

They are Dr. Ellen Thrailkill, a private practice dentist in Pickens, South Carolina, and part-time clinical instructor at Palmetto Health Richland Hospital’s general practice residency program; and Dr. Charlie Clark, a pediatric dentist in Gilbert, Arizona.

Q: Describe where you traveled and how you discovered the opportunity.

Extraction: Dr. Ellen Thrailkill performs an extraction on a patient in Ecuador in 2010. Her mother, Lori Thrailkill, holds a light for her.

Extraction: Dr. Ellen Thrailkill performs an extraction on a patient in Ecuador in
2010. Her mother, Lori Thrailkill, holds a light for her.

Dr. Ellen Thrailkill: I have gone on 12 different mission trips, including to Ecuador, Burundi, Costa Rica, Kenya and Haiti. The Dental Community Fellowship, a local chapter of the Christian Medical & Dental Associations at the Medical University of

South Carolina, where I attended school, organized most of the trips. One of the trips to Kenya was organized by a church where I am a member. The number of people on each team varied from eight to 75.

Dr. Charlie Clark: I have joined the Canadian-based Dentistry for All on several mission trips to Guatemala over the past eight years. This first trip for me included 12 volunteers from all over the USA and Canada, many of whom continue to return on clinic trips. We all quickly became friends and each year look forward to the next adventure together.

Q: What were your duties there?

ET: Depending on the trip, I’ve done extractions, restorations (composite and amalgam fillings) and hygiene (cleanings and fluoride).

CC: We all share duties ranging from filling water bottles and changing over chairs to checking patients out and explaining post-operative instructions. Any procedure that would be limited to specialized training in the USA or Canada is also limited to those who have the specific training required. We bring trained dental assistants, hygienists, dentists and specialists to provide an optimal level of care to our communities.

Q: What challenges did you face, including language or cultural differences?

ET: Flight changes, lost baggage, being out of my comfort zone, working with a generator/working without a generator, headlights going dead and adult patients taking clinic tickets from young kids or elderly people are among the challenges I’ve had.

Usually language barriers are kept to a minimum. For non-English speaking countries, interpreters are present and available. Most interpreters are local to the area where we are working, so they can help us better understand cultural differences as well.

CC: The organization that I worked with, Dentistry for All, has had a long-standing relationship with the communities where we work. This enables us to partner with local leaders and community workers to facilitate communication.

Still, preparing for a trip abroad can be daunting. Fundraising, gathering supplies and managing time away from family and the office can feel overwhelming.

Q: What were the highlights?

ET:The people I’ve met, including patients and other team members, made quite an impact on me. I still can’t quite wrap my head around a patient, in Burundi, walking for 20 hours to get his tooth looked at, resulting in blistered feet. Also working with dental students, spending time with mentors who have so much wisdom to share and attending worship services in Africa all stand out as highlights. The biggest highlight for me, being so motivated by my faith, would be helping and loving people.

CC: Working with the young children always brings a smile no matter where in the world you are. Then there’s the patient who had been in pain for months who returned to clinic the day after having an infected tooth extracted just to give a hug and tell us about the first night of restful sleep she had in weeks. And the patient who never smiled, but wrote a letter to the group (months later, through an interpreter) expressing gratitude for changing their life after receiving endodontic treatment and crown buildups on their maxillary incisors.

Q: What advice do you have for dentists considering international volunteering?

ET: Just go! You may want to look into volunteering at a local free clinic in your area, if you’re not already. If you want to get involved in international dental service but can’t go on a trip, you may consider helping fund a dental student’s trip so he/she can go. I wouldn’t have been able to go if it weren’t for generous donors.

CC: Do it! It will change your life. As dentists we have all been fortunate to receive specialized training that allows us to provide care that can truly change another person’s life. Our group saying is “Change a Smile: Change a Life!”

The ADA Foundation can help dentists find a volunteer trip that suits their interests. Visit internationalvolunteer.ADA.org to search for opportunities by program type, country served, organization name or religious affiliation.

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