Volunteer efforts shift after Hurricane Maria destruction

Dr. Liliam Ortiz Galarza, founder of Dentistas Misioneros de Puerto Rico.

In September 2017, Hurricane Maria, a category 4 storm, hit the island of Puerto Rico. The destruction from the southeast to the northwest of the islands left thousands of homes and businesses damaged and without power for months. According to one source, the death toll, including indirect deaths from the storm, is now estimated to be 4,645, making it one of the deadliest natural disasters in American history.

Massive complications affected the health care infrastructure of the communities across the island, with remote areas hardest hit and without power for the longest periods. Public health conditions deteriorated when many health care providers’ offices were destroyed, inoperable and without power, unable to conduct business for months. Even those providers with generators still faced unsuitable practice conditions and lacked medical supplies.

The ADA has disaster recovery resources developed for those affected by recent hurricanes or storms.

In 2000, Dr. Liliam Ortiz Galarza, a general dentist in Humacao, Puerto Rico, founded a nonprofit organization called the Dentistas Misioneros de Puerto Rico or Missionary Dentists of Puerto Rico. It began as a way to reach patients around the globe in nearby countries who did not have adequate dental care. The group would travel internationally to locations including Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Caribbean, Center and South America, to provide dental treatment to those who were unable to access care. After Hurricane Maria, the urgent need shifted to the local residents in Puerto Rico, whose recently destroyed homes and offices were slowly being rebuilt alongside their towns and local communities.

“It took us three months to rebuild our office in Humacao, PR,” Dr. Ortiz shares. “My office had a generator but the building was destroyed and we were unable to use anything until it was rebuilt.”

“Everybody was focused on rebuilding their own homes and we didn’t even have the means to communicate with the lines downed,” Dr. Ortiz says. “The organization was fortunate enough to receive two larger donations from our friends on the mainland, California Dental Association and PR Medical Association of El Paso, Texas to help purchase new equipment and start providing care again on the island.”

“It is rewarding to provide the free of charge dental clinics in the remote parts of the island, but they are expensive to host even with the volunteers delivering care,” said Dr. Ortiz. Colgate was the main sponsor for the materials at their latest mission in the Puerto Rican island of Vieques earlier this spring. There were 24 dentists volunteering, from US and Puerto Rico, this past February in Vieques, including one of the local dentists based there and a total of 42 volunteers.

The Dentistas Misioneros de Puerto Rico started making arrangements for the remote parts of the islands that were without access to health care. They hosted clinics in Culebra and Vieques, islands off the eastern part of mainland Puerto Rico. Dentists have joined together and have worked in more than 30 clinics around the island, to provide services since the hurricane Maria.

Dr. Zack Kalarickal (left), Dr. Liliam Ortiz and Dr. Scott Szotko (right) discussing treatment plan of a patient.

One dentist who recently volunteered in Vieques with Dr. Ortiz explained his dedication to help. “The devastation that Puerto Rico saw after Hurricane Maria was extreme and it took almost a year for providers to have even have access to patients,” shares Dr. Zack Kalarickal, a general dentist based in Wesley Chapel, Florida. “Oral health conditions for patients on the island deteriorated while most people were in basic survival mode and were unable to visit a dentist,” says Dr. Kalarickal. “The oral health community on mainland US wanted to help and Dr. Ortiz and the other volunteers have worked within the community to put these clinics together in parts of Puerto Rico that need the care most.”

Last month, the group went into the schools in Culebra to provide services to children in school. It is mandatory law in Puerto Rico that children are required oral health education by preschool and in second, fourth, sixth, eighth and tenth grades. The schools haven’t been able to provide this education in the rural areas so the Misioneros are showing up to help educate children on the importance of oral health in the schools and provide examinations. Vieques only has one general dentist and one pediatric dentist and they have to see an entire island of people. The nearby island of Culebra, smaller than Vieques, has 2 dental clinics but is only open two days a week.

“I volunteer because it is in my heart to give back to those in need,” Dr. Scott Szotko another volunteer in Vieques explains. “Each of us (dentists) has an opportunity to make the world a better place through our gift of a smile.”

After Hurricane Maria, it is estimated that almost 210 dentists left the island after the devastation. Many dentists have traveled from the mainland United States to provide volunteer services in Puerto Rico. It had been the group’s goal since the hurricane to have at least two clinics a year Vieques, Puerto Rico. So far, there have been five total since the destruction of 2017. These local efforts are in addition to the upcoming international efforts the group will be continuing overseas this fall in the Dominican Republic in October and Guatemala in November.

To learn more about Dr. Ortiz’s group, check out Dentistas Misioneros de Puerto Rico on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/DMDPR2011/

4 comments

  • Manuel A Cordero

    Dr. Ortiz shows the true Boricua spirit of always giving even if we barely have enough for ourselves. I know that she goes to other poorer countries because the need is great and so are the number of altruistic dentists, from PR, USA and other countries. Kindness has no frontiers.

  • Jose R. Alvarado

    Dra.Lillian Ortiz has been a blessing not only for those underprivileged needing dental treatment in Puerto Rico,but also in Latin America.She has lead Dental Missions in Guatemala ana the Dominican Republic besides those in Puerto Rico for many years.Its has been an honor for me to work with this Mother Theresa in Dentistry!

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