Third world teeth
Dentistry might carry associations of pain and suffering, but it's also something that the developed world takes for granted. In reality, access to quality dentistry doesn't just fall from the sky. Yet, about five years ago, Dr. Elwin Atwood, a Price dentist, traveled to the Dominican Republic to begin fixing teeth free of charge.
While Dr. Atwood's story is not unique, his travels through impoverished countries have left a lasting impression on not only patients, but also students, assistants and the doctor himself.
"It's a wonderful thing to go and change people's lives," said Dr. Atwood.
This effort began with a group of dentists who are part of The G3 Foundation, led by Dr. Len Aste from Manti. The foundation has sponsored such trips to Central and South America for years, but Dr. Atwood became involved when his son, Jake Atwood, was attending Case Western Reserve University as a dentistry student. Although the university does not sponsor any of the excursions, several of its students have taken part for a variety of reasons, primarily to help people, but also for the real world exposure.
"The students get an opportunity to experience dentistry outside of school and sense that they are really giving back," said Dr. Atwood. "There's so much need down there. What we do really doesn't amount to anything, but it does inspire an attitude of sharing and giving."
Many such trips are also supported by a local padre, who makes connections and advocates for the poor people. While each trip lasts only about five days, Dr. Atwood estimates that over 500 teeth are pulled and 50 root canals are completed, along with numerous other procedures.
As is easily imagined, locals with no access to quality dental facilities can have extreme examples of tooth decay. One thing students find shocking is that small cavities can often be the tip of the iceberg, because an entire tooth can be "bombed out," but only show a small hole.
"Really, really hard teeth," is how Dr. Atwood describes what he typically encounters, because many of the locals suck on sugarcane all day, which is very bad for teeth. "I'd never tried it before (sugarcane) until the last trip, but it's a lot like syrup," he said.
One of the group's stories involves a young girl who followed their group around and was "just ornery."
"When we finally asked her what was wrong, she showed us one of her front teeth was gone," said Dr. Atwood. After some short work to fix her smile, the change in the girl was described as nearly 180 degrees. "She went from [being] angry to [becoming] a bright happy girl."
Although success can be seen with individuals, it also clear that the demand greatly outstretches the supply for free dentistry. The doctor and his group have been able to help thousands over the years, but that number is only a small percentage of those in need. The continuing demand is demonstrated when long lines form at their improvised offices. Typically, the dentists move to a new town every day. Every day, a new line forms. Often, word spreads fast and crowds can be big. Not everyone gets help, but still the service is appreciated.
Working conditions can be primitive. Most of the time, churches and schools are utilized. Even so, all the equipment is transported in suitcases and must be powered by portable generators. Most of the equipment is very expensive, but, fortunately, some of it is donated by dental supply outlets and manufacturers.
"We set up in some grungy room and start working. It's kind of like a Third World country sometimes," said Dr. Atwood. "One year, we set up in a tent outside of a Catholic church; we had so many people that wanted help it almost started a riot."
The doctor is also quick to point the quality of work that is done. While some well- publicized dentists travel to countries and solely pull teeth, this group undertakes just about every kind of dentistry from cleaning teeth to replacing them. Students that volunteer are also held to high standards and work very hard.
"We're very careful on what we do. We make sure the (students) do a good job, because we don't want to lose the opportunity, but for the most part, the students know what they're doing," said Dr. Atwood.
The next trip is planned for January 2010. While making such a journey might not be anything new to Dr. Atwood, the service provided is anything but routine.
"I couldn't even hazard a guess as to how many people we've helped over the years, but they're really beautiful people and I know it's made me a better person," he concluded.