A mission trip could change your life.

Hygienist reflects on Jamaica Outreach Program

June 17, 2014
Michele Bissonnette, RDH, reflects on her trip to Kingston, Jamaica with the Jamaica Outreach Program (JOP). Bissonnette explains how the experience changed her life and how it could change yours, too.

If you have ever considered volunteering for a dental mission, I would highly recommend that you stop thinking about it and just go. That’s what I did in March, when I received a phone call from my friend, Lois, who asked me if I would like to accompany her on a mission to Kingston, Jamaica. Without any hesitation, I responded with an immediate “YES!” At that moment, the mission took on a life of its own, and I was in the hands of Roger L. Plante, the kind, compassionate, determined, and persevering dental mission coordinator for Jamaica Outreach Program (JOP).

Marc and Kathy were already joining Roger, Lois, and me on the trip. Marc is a dentist from Montreal, Canada, who came out of retirement solely for the mission, and Kathy is a hygienist from Massachusetts. We still needed one more dentist to join us, however, so when I went to work the following week, I spoke to the doctor about the mission. Without even a second thought, he agreed to go. With Dr. John on board, we only needed to find a dental assistant, so I telephoned my friend Donna, a former dental assistant. Before the call ended, she had enthusiastically committed herself to the mission. Other people, such as Lee from Florida, had never worked in a dental office but came along to lend a hand wherever needed. During my trip, I found that people like these make the mission. If you go on a mission, I can guarantee that you’ll be a changed person when you return home, or, at least, your outlook on life will be changed.

I have heard many stories about the working conditions in which many dental personnel have volunteered during missions to other countries. The Kingston dental clinic where we worked was a concrete building, complete with a roof, doors, a bathroom, a front desk, a waiting room, and a break room! The clinic was five years old with air conditioning, three treatment rooms with full chair units, an X-ray unit, a Peri-Pro Developer, an autoclave, and a temperamental Cavitron. We had to work around the compressor shutting off, as well as losing electricity, power, and water to the units. Isn’t that typical of being on a mission? Despite these technical issues, we were well fed, and we had a constant supply of bottled water. We were also grateful for the constant help of Boxer, our new dear friend who grew up right around the corner from the dental clinic. Boxer is Roger’s fix-it man. If Boxer can’t fix a problem, he will find someone who can – quickly.

The JOP mission headquarters are located in Naples, Florida. Their mission statement reads as follows: “If you ever have wanted to make a difference in the lives of God’s poorest and most needy children, here is your opportunity. You can follow in the footsteps of many of your peers in joining us on a three work-day mission trip to Kingston, Jamaica, at which time we hope to see some 150 needy patients of all ages, most of whom have never received any type of dental care whatsoever.” Let me tell you: we came nearly as close to seeing that many people in the short amount of time that we were volunteering. Between dental cleanings, restorations, and extractions, we treated 40 patients during the first two days at the clinic and 45 patients on our final day. The days were full and nonstop, but that’s why we were there.

It’s worth it. If you ever go on a mission, and you think that you can’t see another patient, take a moment to go look out into the waiting room into the eyes and faces of the beautiful, innocent children and patient adults. Doing so will restore your energy. Most of the patients you’ll see will have been waiting for years to visit the clinic. Some will have saved whatever money they could scrape together, just for transportation to the clinic, and they may even have borrowed the five dollars required to pay for their dental procedure. Their happy faces and gratitude will revive and rejuvenate you, giving you the energy to do it all over again the next day. You’ll even be able to forgive the person who works the front desk for squeezing another 10-15 patients into the schedule each day! I learned all of this from my mission. Now that my mission is over, I would not be surprised if Marc, the retired dentist from Montreal, is headed right back to his restful retirement lifestyle!

Because the clinic we visited was located on school grounds, Roger asked the hygienists to perform dental screenings on the school children as part of the mission. Basically, we looked into their mouths with a mirror and a flashlight (which came in handy at the clinic, as well) in order to record what appeared to be in need of attention. The children were polite, soft-spoken, shy, well behaved, and attentive. On this particular day, the children were scheduled for early school release. I had already screened one classroom of 12- and 13-year-olds when I asked the teacher if there were more classes in that age group, and she told me that there were. I didn’t realize how many more there were! I expected to screen 20-30 additional children, but within one and a half hours, I had screened close to 190 more children! I was glad that we had enough toothbrushes and prizes to go around.

We stayed at a nearby hostel, which doubled as a convent and was once a busy hotel. The hostel was safe; a barbed wire fence surrounded the hostel, a school, and a church, and the premises had both a guard dog and a gatekeeper. The Olympic-size swimming pool was great for relaxing after long (but rewarding) days. The grounds were well manicured with vibrant flowers, and a van with a dedicated driver, Felix, was available specifically for the mission crew. Felix drove us to and from the clinic, as well as anywhere else we needed to go between the two locations.

At the end of each day, every person from our crew had different stories to share about their experiences with the patients. One of my stories was about a patient who came in concerned about her discolored front tooth and thought that it needed to be extracted. She was worried and dentally conscientious. After I cleaned and examined her teeth, educated her with home care instructions, and reassured her that her tooth would not need to be extracted, she proceeded to remove her earrings and necklace and graciously gave them to me. She was grateful for my time, respect, and explanation of how she could take care of her mouth.

A story of Dr. John’s involved asking one of the children if he was going to place his extracted tooth under his pillow for the tooth fairy. Given that we were in the poorest part of Jamaica, a pillow probably wasn’t available, so we learned that they throw the tooth onto the rooftop instead. We also learned that the primary tooth is referred to as a “milk tooth” or “cow tooth.”

If you ever go on a mission, and you’re lucky enough, you might get to do an extraction like I did. One patient who had a tooth extracted was so thankful that he came back to give the doctor a bottle of Jamaican wildfire rum – back to the olden days of payments made with a cow or a goat!

All in all, the stories are different but the same. We are excited at the possibility of instituting a fluoride rinse program and, in the future, a sealant program. A mission is made by the people you encounter and by what you put into it. Believe me, you’ll get so much out of it. Just show up! If you’re interested in going on a mission to Kingston, Jamaica, contact Roger at [email protected]. You won’t regret it. As a matter of fact, some of us are already planning on returning to Kingston next year.

Michele Bissonnette, RDH, can be contacted at [email protected].