From Connecticut to Peru

May 1, 2001
Trudging through the Amazon River basin may not sound like the ideal Spring Break to some people, but to students and faculty members at the University of Connecticut School of Dental Medicine, it's the perfect destination.
The team heads down the Amazon River.
Click here to enlarge image

Trudging through the Amazon River basin may not sound like the ideal Spring Break to some people, but to students and faculty members at the University of Connecticut School of Dental Medicine, it's the perfect destination.

Far away from the beaches of Florida and the mountains of Colorado, 25 students and eight preceptors made their annual pilgrimage to Peru in late February. During their week-long stay, more than 1,500 people were treated.

"The main thing we see is caries," said Dr. Michael T. Goupil, assistant dean for student affairs and assistant professor in the department of oral and maxillofacial surgery at the University of Connecticut. "Sugar cane is an important part of their diet, so caries is very prevalent. We don't see a lot of periodontal disease because their teeth just don't last that long."

Last February marked the sixth time representatives from UConn had made the trek to South America. The first trip in 1995 consisted of eight students and two preceptors. After taking a year off in 1997, the trip has exploded to its current level.

Dr. Goupil and the rest of the UConn team work with the Association for the Promotion of Education and Conservation in Amazonia (APECA). Once they arrive at El Fundo — a compound owned by APECA which accomodates 25 people — they break into teams and travel by boat to villages throughout the Amazon region.

"For the most part, the people are overjoyed to see us," Dr. Goupil said. "Most of the villages are prepped in advance for us by APECA. We had some new villages this year. When you go into a new village, there is some apprehension because we are Caucasian and we are the only healthcare providers they will see during the year. In villages we have visited in the past, the mystique of seeing different people is gone."

The majority of the work performed by UConn members is the removal of infected teeth. Last year, more than 1,500 non-restorable, infected teeth were extracted. Toothbrushes and toothpaste were given to the people along with oral hygiene instructions.

David J. Song of the UConn Health Center comes to the aid of a young patient in Peru.
Click here to enlarge image

"We deliver extractions to try to prevent infection," Dr. Goupil said. "If anyone is in pain, he or she is treated first. Depending on the number of people who are waiting for care, we will try to treat some of the other problems the patient may have as well." This was the third year for Dr. Goupil to make the trip, and he believes he has seen improvement in the villages.

"Where we have been, the number of people with acute problems has definitely been reduced," he said. "Three years ago, we might have seen 150 people in a village. This year, in that same village, we might have had only 60 to 70 patients. We're battling the same disease process; we're just catching up to it." And Dr. Goupil always reminds his students they are catching up with the disease under the watch of international eyes.

"We train our students and our preceptors on what they should do and what to expect because APECA is very fussy about the work that is performed and very sensitive about how the organization is received in these villages," Dr. Goupil explained. "At the same time, we are fussy about the living and working conditions our students and faculty members experience. We'll also watch the political climate to make sure it is safe for our group to travel."

Once the group arrives in Peru, the members have what Dr. Goupil calls "an eye-opening experience. "It's almost not describable how these people live," he said. "They exist in thatch-roofed huts built on poles because they live on a flood plain. Many of these people use the Amazon River for everything — cooking, cleaning, bathing, drinking, etc. Some may have a well for water, and very few have electricity. But these are happy people because the less they have, the more they act together. Every village has a soccer field. That's very important to them.

"These people will share whatever they can with us, and that is a huge compliment because they don't have much. There's a big difference between our countries' cultures and socioeconomic standings. It's an eye-opening experience for most of our students, because they have never seen poverty like this."

Dr. Goupil said the goal of the trip is two-fold. "It is our hope that our students learn some language skills, as well as improve their dental skills. We hope they will come back to the United States with more confidence in their surgical skills and giving local anesthetic," he said. "They're also given the chance to help someone in pain and interact with them.

"For many of them, this is the first time they have been out of the country. So we highly encourage them to stay after the week of dentistry to do some tours of South America and look at the different cultures."

How CAN YOU BECOME involved IN dental mission trips?

National organizations include:
The Flying Doctors
(800) 585-4568

Operation Smile
(757) 321-7645

Mission Finder
(208) 723-4657

Or look on any Internet search engine for "dental missionary."