When I first when to Dr. Kim’s pre-trip meeting introducing the Haiti dental service trip, I expected it to be a vacation. I thought about my classmates’ Facebook pictures of them treating patients in an air conditioned modern clinic, trekking in the jungle, and relaxing in the beach. I knew that Haiti was in the Caribbean and when I thought of Caribbean islands, what I pictured were tropical resorts. The meeting was introductory, so we didn’t go into details about the trip itself. I should’ve done more research. But I was a 3rd year dental student at the moment, so I was more preoccupied with successfully finishing my first denture case and studying for my implant exam the following week. On the night before leaving to Haiti, I remember packing my bathing suit and sunglasses in my suitcase. I was glad that I forgot to pack my beach towel, because my bathing suit and sunglasses never left my suitcase throughout the trip.
We were in Haiti for only 6 days, so Dr. Kim didn’t waste time. Starting from day 1, we checked the church building that will be used as a clinic the next day and organized dental supplies that we will use the next day into a few bags for easy transportation. The food that our host provided was delicious and the view outside of the window was the exotic landscape of Haiti, not the usual Chinatown streets that I can see from the library windows. Everything just felt perfect the first day.
The next day, I really learned what I signed up for. The clinic resembled a field hospital in an active war zone. There were no dental chairs. This was when I was told that Haiti is the poorest country in the continents of North and South America. We had to make things work with normal folding chairs, so working ergonomically was not an option. Sterilization of dental instruments had to be done with sodium hypochlorite and a pressure cooker in the corner and since we were in a tropical island with no air conditioning, the humidity and heat made it feel like working in a spa. There was no suction and air/water syringe available, so controlling moisture and having a clear clinical view were impossible. However, we had to make it work with gauze and periodically asking the patient to spit blood into a temporary trash can made of a paper box and head rest cover inside. It made me understand why Dr. Kim wanted to set up dental chairs in Haiti so much.
Above all, we were severely outnumbered. There was a long line of Haitians waiting for dental treatment and this line did not get shorter throughout the day. Haitians have a high caries index and a lot of them have never seen a tooth brush before. It broke my heart when I would see teenagers with completely decayed and blown out permanent teeth. I knew that all of their teeth were hopeless but because of the amount of people waiting, I only had time to take out the teeth that are causing pain at the moment. I couldn’t imagine living with no teeth, because without teeth eating and speaking properly was not possible. But extractions were necessary to get the patient out of pain and fortunately the patients understood that. This trend of high caries index made me relieved when seeing pediatric patients with intact permanent teeth, because with sealants and oral hygiene instructions, they have a chance to maintain intact teeth for a longer time.
We only had a handful of clinicians but hundreds of patients every day. So, I had to run from one chair to another to see as many patients as possible. Knowing that the people who came to our temporary clinic won’t see a dentist for a long time, I couldn’t take breaks. For lunch, I just ate snack bars while cleaning up the chair between patients. Everyone worked without stopping, drenched in sweat, knowing that we were providing care where the need is greatest and this positive energy from the team members was the driving force that kept me going throughout the trip without burning out. Despite the difficult working conditions and long hours, I felt great, because providing dental care in the poorest country in the Americas represented the reason why I went into dentistry. Throughout the five clinic days in Haiti, we saw 1314 patients as a group of 2 dentists, 1 4th year student, 1 3rd year student, 1 2nd year student, 3 1st year students, and 5 non dental people. The change that we made in Haiti is probably small, but I believe it is the beginning of a larger change. The Haiti dental service team is growing in numbers every year, more dental schools are getting involved, and there is more awareness in the activities of the organization “Dentists for Humanity”.
I also learned a lot through this trip. When I was a kid, I had to get a root canal from a deep carious lesion. Consequently, I learned how excruciating dental pain could be when the nerve is involved. The pain inhibits one from engaging in daily activities, sleeping, or eating. At the Haiti trip, I knew I was getting people out of this excruciating pain. The trip showed me what my profession is really about and how rewarding it could be. This was something that I was never able to learn in dental school. Memorizing the anatomy of a molar or doing a crown prep on a plastic tooth didn’t show me the purpose behind studying dentistry. The dental school curriculum rather made me feel burned out, since I had to memorize thousands of lecture slides without knowing what it means to practice dentistry. However, by treating people in Haiti, I was able to experience how my dental education could get people out of pain. At the end of the trip, I was motivated to work harder in school, because now I knew that my dental education can make a difference in peoples’ lives. In addition, the trip made me want to become a better dentist because I realized that my ability to clinically diagnose and treat people was limited by the amount of dental knowledge and experience I have.
This trip was a very rewarding experience and I would like to thank Dentists for Humanity for giving me this wonderful opportunity. I am planning on joining future Haiti trips as much as possible. Lastly, the Haiti dental service trip was possible and successful because of your whole hearted support. Coming to this gala and supporting this organization is the reason why Dentists for Humanity can continue making Haiti a better place. – Paul Kang (D16)