By Nour Shehadeh, RDH, MPH
I love dentistry! As a dental hygienist for the last seven years, and a dental assistant for the four years prior, I have been exposed to and worked with many aspects of dentistry. For me, nothing comes close to public health dentistry; it holds a special place in my heart.
In most developing countries, people do not have access to dental care, or if they do the expense or care places it beyond their reach. Lack of accessible dental care in many parts of the world has inspired me to give back to communities in need.
It all started by volunteering in my own community in Chicago. Over time, I broadened my horizons to volunteer regionally and then nationally. Then one day I came across Global Dental Relief (GDR)—a nonprofit organization whose mission is to provide dental care to children around the world. I was struck by their commitment to return to the same communities to provide long-term continuous care and education.
GDR takes groups of dentists, hygienists, assistants, and non-dental volunteers to work in weeklong field clinics. Children receive an exam, any fillings or extractions they need, a cleaning, fluoride varnish, oral health education, and a new toothbrush.
The next thing I knew I was boarding a plane to Cambodia to help children in need. What an incredible experience! All logistics were organized on my behalf by GDR office staff. On the ground, the clinic leaders were patient, very kind, and incredibly knowledgeable about the community and country. I’ve been on several clinics now and am always struck by how much good one can do with dentistry.
The clinic runs like a well-oiled machine. Each dentist and hygienist has a dedicated assistant, and there are translators who float around the clinic, helping out wherever it is needed. Nondental volunteers do sterilization, manage records, apply fluoride varnish, manage clinic flow, and teach oral hygiene instruction. Comprehensive care is provided to each child; it’s not extraction after extraction, it’s complete care with education, prevention and restorations.
During the weeklong clinic in Cambodia, we treated over 1,000 children with first-time dental care. The clinic was set up in an empty school room in a rural village outside of Siem Reap in northwestern Cambodia. Children attending the clinic came from the village where they live in a one-room wooden home with dirt floors. These children live without access to any dental care.
On the last day of the six-day clinic, a nine-year-old girl sat in my chair. She had heavily stained teeth; they were literally black from the rusty water she was drinking—every surface of her teeth was stained. I did my part as a hygienist to clean her teeth and remove all the stain. I gave her the mirror and told her to have a look at her mouth; she got up out of the chair and gave me a huge hug. Through this simple act, I was able to restore her smile. I will never forget that moment. I think in some way we all entered the dental profession to change lives for the better.
From that moment, I was hooked. As soon as I returned home, I booked another trip, this time to Kathmandu, Nepal. As fellow hygienist Rene Hart said of her volunteer experience, “Seeing how much good GDR brings to all the children they treat is truly hard to explain until you see it yourself. The children are so thankful for what we are doing for them and it is one of the most remarkable things I have ever witnessed.”
Global Dental Relief volunteers have been working since 2001 to bring dental care to children around the world. Over the last 16 years, volunteers have treated 135,000 children in India, Nepal, Cambodia, Kenya and Guatemala. In 2017, 367 volunteers served 19,000 children with $9.2 million in donated dental care.
In Nepal, I was joined by five dentists, a hygienist, and a handful of non-dental volunteers. The clinic was set up in a charity boarding school where the older kids helped by assisting in the clinic. Students come from high mountain villages in the Himalayas, often a weeklong walk from the closest road and then a two- or three-day bus ride to reach Kathmandu. Most of these kids don’t see their families for years. It is simply too expensive, or the road is too treacherous to return to their village.
My assistant, Bishnu, wants to be a dental hygienist. She comes from a village that is a two-day bus ride from Kathmandu, followed by an eight-day walk on steep, unforgiving trails. She has not seen her family in eight years, and yet each day she greets me with a heartfelt smile, with sincere joy and gratitude for the work being done in the clinic. As I see her smile each morning, I realize I receive more than I give on these projects, so much more.
Beware that these volunteer experiences are contagious. After returning from Nepal, I booked another trip to Guatemala. There is something addictive about this work. The immediacy of being able to help a child in need—there is nothing like it. They walk into the clinic in pain and walk out smiling. That’s why I love dentistry, it changes lives.
Whether you’re a dental professional or not, volunteering with GDR is a wonderful way to give back to the world and to bring dentistry to developing countries. Once you start, you won’t stop. It’s the experience of a lifetime—a humbling feeling to know you can make change, for the better. Whether it’s in Cambodia, Guatemala, India, Nepal, or Kenya, there is a child’s smile waiting to be cared for and a place in the world that is a sight to see.
About Global Dental Relief
Global Dental Relief’s mission is to bring free dental care to children throughout the world. Volunteer dentists, hygienists, assistants, and non-dental volunteers deliver treatment and preventive care in dental clinics that serve children in schools, orphanages, and remote villages.
With a vision to transform lives and cultivate community through volunteerism, GDR provides opportunities for diverse groups of volunteers to explore the world and bring free dental care and oral hygiene education to thousands of impoverished children in Nepal, India, Cambodia, Kenya, and Guatemala.