Return to Haiti 2010: Pestilence, Politics, and Pedodontics

Return to Haiti 2010: Pestilence, Politics, and Pedodontics

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

This report follows not only Northwest Dentistry Executive Editor Bill Stein's continuing dental mission to the embattled island of Haiti, but the journal's mission to revisit stories we have introduced.**  Our contributors invariably bring their individual understanding of their topic to whatever they find, and in this report readers will find an amazing positive energy given the circumstances the majority of the island's population endure.  Journalists are taught to "consider the source" when evaluating information.  This journal considers its source impeccably qualified.

The [Other] Editors

It had been almost two years since we were in Haiti. Earthquakes, hurricanes, and an ongoing cholera epidemic had heaped death and destruction on Haiti, that punching bag nation of the Caribbean, reeling once more from  the blows of outrageous fortune.

My wife Terry and I had committed two years ago to help establish a dental clinic at Father Glen Meaux’s  school and community at Kobonal, just outside of Hinche, in the central plateau. We had sent some dental supplies and equipment in a container bound for the mission at that time. This summer we packed in earnest. We filled our new container with all the supplies and equipment needed to establish a full service dental clinic at Fr. Glenn’s mission.

Last spring, a large group of pedodontists from Nebraska had become the first dental team to treat the 1,300 children who attend Fr. Glenn’s schools. They were well equipped with a vast supply of surgical instruments, doing only much needed extractions for the children. This year we wanted to take the care of the kids to the next level.

Getting Centered

The weeks leading up to departure are always filled with doubts and anxiety, but once the big American Airlines jet set down at the Port Au Prince airport, I looked around at our team: my wife Terry and the members of the old crew from our first trip to Haiti, almost 18 years ago. There were the familiar faces of Jim Kirzeder, the team leader; Paul Lendobeja, jack of all trades and fixer of everything; and Dave Potter, laborer “par excellence”. I felt calm and at home.

After negotiating the necessary hassle of exiting the airport luggage intact and buckling into the seats of the small Missionary Fellowship Alliance Cessna, I was truly at peace and enjoying the view on our flight to Hinche. The view was not so joyous at the beginning as we flew over the still apparent destruction of Port Au Prince and the vast tent cities sprawling below us. This vista soon gave way to the great expanse of denuded mountains that are the hallmark of the Haitian interior. Even so, it was the stark beauty of the mountains and the huge lake and dam that promises to provide hydroelectric power to much of the country that gave me my first glimmer of hope and encouragement.

All too soon we set down at Hinche International, a shell-gravel landing strip in the middle of the fifth largest city in Haiti. Fr. Meaux was there to meet us, along with “Bingo”, his right hand man, driving their 20-year-old pick-up truck, “Choo-choo.” As soon as our luggage was collected, we bumped our way up the rugged road to the Society of Our Lady of the Holy Trinity compound at Kobonal.

Twenty-seven years ago, Fr. Glenn’s order sent him to establish a mission in Haiti. He studied the country and picked the worst area in a land of worst areas, a place where voodoo ran rampant and where even human sacrifice was alleged to take place.

Purchasing the allowed 13 acres, Fr.Glenn established his faith community. He established law and order. For those who agreed to abide by the rules of God, obey the Ten Commandments, practice their faith, honor their marriage vows, work hard, and send their children to school, there would be a nice house, a house that each of them would help build, and togetherthey would share in the growth of a movement that someday could rescue their country.

And it works! People always ask me, “Is there any hope for Haiti?” Well, yes there is. It will mean the people taking their lives into their own hands and following God’s natural law, embracing what is good and despising what is evil. It is a tall order, but the people must take ownership of the projects needed to provide them with food and clean water and education. What I see at work in Haiti applies anywhere, and everywhere.

Fr. Meaux refers to the local people as “peasants”. At first I was taken aback, but he is right. The average Haitian is a peasant. This is not a pejorative term, and it is dead-on accurate. For centuries the majority of the Haitian people have lived as peasants, not owning land but just living as share croppers or squatters, beholden to some far-off elite politician or landlord.

And so we had come once again to live and work with the peasants.

Getting Started

We had a scant few minutes to settle in at the mission house, and then Terry and I were off to the dental clinic. Little did we know we were in for a pleasant surprise.

Dr. Kelly Maixner and his wife, Margaret, were already in the temporary clinic space and had everything up and running. Kelly, a pedodontist, and Margaret, a surgical nurse, had arrived only a couple of hours ahead of us, but had all the surgical instruments sterilized and organized. Usually this takes a full day for Terry to set up along with my bumbling help.

The Maixners were truly a godsend. Kelly grew up as a North Dakota farmboy, so he can do almost everything. Margaret grew up just outside of Wasilla, Alaska, so she can do absolutely everything. Kelly and Margaret were married the Saturday before our trip, yet here they were celebrating their honeymoon by serving the poor in Haiti. They now live in a little town outside of Wasilla. They don’t know Sarah Palin personally, but they can see her house from there.

The four of us hit it off from the beginning. The first day, we were limited to extractions and any restorative dentistry we could do without a handpiece. Kelly showed me a technique he learned at a seminar on third world dentistry for placing stainless steel crowns directly over carious deciduous teeth without having to use anesthesia. It works like a charm. I in turn showed him how to use the Septodont Paroject syringe with an ultra-short 30 gauge needle and four percent Articaine with 1:200,000 epinephrine to achieve instantaneous anesthesia in our pedo patients so we could extract the offending teeth without any waiting time.

We also learned a valuable lesson from the team that preceded us. I have had this happen many times before: While rooting around in the remnants of dental equipment from previous missionaries, I’ve stumbled upon some odd instrument that in my hands solved my problems. So it was this time. I found a couple of spade-shaped elevators that were just perfect for wrenching out the rotten and broken off roots we were running into. Kelly and I told Fr. about our find, and he said, “The Omaha group really like that too. I think they called them ‘voodoo hammers’.” And so the name stuck. The first thing I did when I returned to my office was to order a set of “voodoo hammers.”

Unfortunately, though not unforeseen, the container with all of our supplies to establish a full service clinic was held up on the docks of Cap Haitian. More fortunately, the contents of our original container were still there, and with the help of our experienced work crew, by the second day we had a chair dedicated to restorative care.

The wonderful thing about being in Haiti is the many exceptional people you meet there. Kelly and Margaret, for example, beyond being such caring and competent health care professionals, are award winners in many other ways.

Margaret is the defending Alaskan “Wilderness Girl” champion. The competition involves running, mushing, shooting, snow machine driving, and a race to build a baloney sandwich and bring a beer to an imaginary boyfriend. She can’t defend her title this year because she is now married. She has spent time doing missionary work in Mexico and Africa.

For Thanksgiving dinner, Margaret made us a scrumptious peach rum cake from scratch.

Kelly grew up in North Dakota, went to dental school in Florida, and wound up in Alaska, much to his good fortune in meeting and marrying Margaret. He is the proud owner of a pack of 42 sled dogs, and has qualified to run the Iditarod this March. In his spare time, he flies back to North Dakota to treat the kids on the Sioux reservation.

The Maixners hope to climb Mt. McKinley just for fun.

We also met Colleen and Dick, a farming couple from Ohio who have done extensive missionary work in Bosnia. Colleen, a pharmacist, helped set up the clinic. Dick, at near seven feet tall, enlisted Paul to help trim the trees. Dick and Colleen specialize in bringing the local agriculture techniques up to speed. Judging from the size of the mammoth avocados Fr. grows, they are very successful in their work!

Getting Good

It was truly a great joy to work in our clinic. We had three modern dental chairs which worked some of the time. We had three interpreters who spoke some English, but we all did just fine. It was humbling to do the first restorative work in Kobonal, and we know it will just get better when the new container arrives.

The children of the community were a joy. They paraded in singing each morning and stood at formation in front of our clinic building each day, singing their morning prayers and pledging allegiance to the Haitian flag as it was raised over the administration building.

We were well nourished during our stay, as Fr. Meaux said Mass for us each day. Fr.’s Aunt Mary was visiting, and she kept us in fresh bread and good old Cajun cooking. We all gained weight!

Getting There From Here

On Thursdays, the “destitute” people, as Fr. calls them, come to receive commodities and clothing. We witnessed perhaps 200 of these people, all bringing some sticks of firewood to fuel the cooking fires for the school children — a small payment, all they could afford — all sitting in orderly community groups, waiting patiently.

Old friends came to call. Our man in Haiti, our water specialist, spent the night. He broke the news that the cholera epidemic was indeed caused by the poor sanitary conditions in the UN camps.

Another old friend who had come down from Minnesota almost 20 years ago and never gone back made a surprise visit. This is one amazing guy. He has been shot at, falsely accused of murder, imprisoned, freed; fled to work in Iraq and Afghanistan, returned to Haiti, was exonerated, and is now flourishing due to his unlimited love and respect for the Haitian people.

What a joy to spend time with him. On Monday we went to Mother Teresa’s home for the homeless. These sisters shine with the light of their holiness. All the people are so happy to be in their care. Little children who had been abandoned and suffering from terrible diseases were now smiling and greeting us in song.

The nuns asked if we could come back next year and do some dental work there. Paul and I are already working on a plan for how to do this. That is an opportunity Terry and I don’t want to miss!

The Sunday of our trip was Election Day. We were warned not to leave the compound. In the clinic we listened to the local radio station as it broadcast a live remote from Pignon, just down the road: There was quite a gunfight going on, with several people killed. Riots were common around the country, yet we were safe in Fr.’s compound.

Monday evening Colleen expressed concern for two of the local young people. The first was a two-and-a-half-year-old young lady born with a club foot who was now experiencing a mysterious swelling of ten months duration. The second was a young man in need of heart valve replacement. Thanks to the wonders of the internet, I was able to contact my friends at the Hospital of the Sacred Heart in Milot, where we have our other dental clinic. For me, the Holy Spirit was truly at work as Dr. Peter Kelly, the head of the CRUDEM Foundation, told us that indeed there were both an orthopedic and a cardiac surgeon doing missionary work in Milot. Fr.Meaux made arrangements for the little girl to make the arduous five hour trip to Milot that Friday, and for the young heart patient to be seen the next time the cardiologist, who lives in the neighboring  Dominican Republic, is at the hospital. It is a great blessing to have a network of these wonderful people.

The Last Days

As we speak, cholera has affected more than 200,000 Haitians, with more than 2,000 dead. The hospital in Hinche had tents in the front yard where the victims were treated.

Our greatest defense against cholera was the little bottle of hand sanitizer we carried in our pockets. Everywhere we went, the hand sanitizer went with us, and we were safe.

Tuesday we bid farewell to our friends in Haiti and made our way back to Port Au Prince, fought our way into the airport, and landed safely in Miami, hand sanitizer and all. Safely home.

Safe, that is, until I was forced to lumber along at full speed trying to keep up with our fleeter travelers, whereupon I tripped and fell forward on the terrazzo floor, landing on my hand sanitizer and deeply bruising my thigh, making me limp even more for the next week. The real tragedy was that I was carrying a five-pack of fine Haitian rum and broke a bottle!

We all mourned its passing - even the Customs agents, who said, “We’ll clean this up slowly, so we can all enjoy the aroma!”

Alas, a week after we returned home, the wandering container arrived at the mission. But it was just as well we weren’t there, as the Port Au Prince airport was closed due to rioting over the election results. They will have a run-off rather than a recount. Are you listening, Minnesota?


*Dr. Stein is the Executive Editor of Northwest Dentistry. He is a general dentist in private practice in Aitkin, Minnesota. Email is

 **”Thoughts on a Tragedy”, Northwest Dentistry, March-April 2010, page 25.