Editorial: Slumdog Dental Practice

Editorial: Slumdog Dental Practice

William E. Stein, D.D.S.*:

It had been a couple of years since we served in our dental clinic at the Hopital Sacre-Coeur in Milot, Haiti, so it was with some trepidation that we set out on our latest adventure. The nuns who have run the hospital have left, leaving control of the facility in the able hands of the Haitian administration. This is a good thing and the ultimate intent of all our missionary work in Haiti. Still, we would miss the firm guidance of Sr. Martha and her staff.

In Fort Lauderdale on the eve of our journey, Terry and I made the mistake of watching the Academy Award winning movie “Slumdog Millionaire”. We tossed and turned with visions of the grinding poverty of India tormenting our dreams until the 3:00 a.m. wake-up call jolted us to consciousness.

The flight to Cap Haitian on the Lynx Air “flying tube” was uneventful. We were met by Islane, the hospital administrator, who whisked us through customs without the usual extortion hassle.

Cap Haitian hasn’t changed much: wall to wall humanity, dust, shacks lining the road, and the bustle of people trying to eke out a living in the poorest country in the western hemisphere. Unbelievably, the four hurricanes of last year have left the roads in even worse condition than I remember.

After a long, bone-shaking ride, we arrived at the relative serenity of the mission compound. After dinner I was able to serve as a Deacon in Haiti for the first time as I assisted the saintly Fr. Joachim Anantua, or “Pere Ti Joa”, which means “Fr. Little Joe”, at Mass in our Chapel.

Terry and I had been dreading what we would find at the dental clinic following our long absence. We had some equipment to install, something I’m not particularly good at. Terry and I were traveling alone. Our fix-it guy Jim was up in Pignon, and hoped to join us during the week.

Thank the Lord, our dental clinic was in fine shape. Roselynn, the dental assistant we hired last trip, has done a great job of keeping up the equipment and supplies. Dr. Gina and her young associate, a recent graduate of the Port au Prince dental school, continue to be a great blessing to the Haitian people.

The days in the clinic were challenging as usual, with the high points of restoring smiles with composite and seeing the amazed and grateful looks on our patient’s faces. There were abscesses to drain and teeth to extract and calculus to blast off with the ultrasonic I did manage to install.

The weather was rainy, and Jim was not able to get down the mountain to assist us. Sadly, they had a truck accident, and some of our American missionaries suffered broken bones. Jim was fine.

As I am blessed with two wonderful hygienists at home, I seldom get to pick up an ultrasonic scaler. It was an honor to blast the calculus from Pere Ti Joa’s teeth. When we think of doing dentistry in third world countries, we think extractions; maybe we should start including the ultrasonic to save as many teeth as we can.

It was good to visit with our many Haitian friends. Things are actually looking up a bit in the town of Milot. It seems everyone now has a cell phone and makes good use of it. The streets are flooded with cheap Chinese motorbikes, probably those banned in the U.S. because of lead paint on the gas tanks and the fear that young American children will chew on them. The people are now using the motorbikes as taxis! You can flag down a guy on a motorbike and he will take you wherever you want to go. It was fun to observe the motorbikes serving as school buses. The record was six on a bike. Four little girls in their school uniforms stacked like spoons on the rear seat, next the driver, and finally one tiny girl perched on the gas tank just behind the handlebars.

Things are still desperate in Haiti. In some places the people are forced to eat clay to slake their hunger pains - but nobody is eating motorbikes!

When the rainy weather let up, we walked through town in the shadows of the verdant mountains to the ruins of the Sans Souci Palace and the ancient church for the 6:30 morning Mass.

One evening while walking the streets, we met two Frenchmen in town filming a movie featuring the massive Citadel fortress 3,000 feet up on top of the mountain overlooking Milot.

You can’t spend a week in Milot without having to deal with the local artisans eager to sell their wares. Most of it is “cheap crap”, but there are a few nice religious articles that we would bargain for. Terry has a heart of gold and needed to practice her negotiating skills:
“How much for the crosses?”
“Twenty-four dollars.”
“Would you take twenty three?”
“Sure!”

I must admit that my beloved is a fast learner, and soon was buying custom paintings for a more realistic fee.

It is a good and blessed thing to go to a third-world country and do missionary dental work. It is nothing to be taken lightly. The Hopital Sacre-Coeur requires a strict examination of your credentials. Sadly, a few years ago a surgeon brought his young pride and joy 17-year-old son down with him and allowed him to close his surgical cases. He was unceremoniously booted out, with good reason. The people of Haiti are poor, but they are people deserving of our greatest respect and our best efforts. A person without a doctor’s degree in dentistry would never be allowed to extract or restore teeth
in Haiti.

The week passed all too quickly, and after a seven-and-a-half-hour delay in the Cap Haitian Airport, we returned to our beloved country and an April Fool’s Day blizzard!

*Dr. Stein is Executive Editor of Northwest Dentistry. He is a general dentist in private practice in Aitkin, Minn., AitkinDent@AOL.com.