The dental profession’s proud tradition of volunteerism is having an impact all around the world, explains Kerryn Ramsey.
You’ll find them in outback Australia and Timor Leste, Mongolia and Nepal, the Pacific Islands and Cambodia. In fact, you’ll find them pretty much anywhere a need is known to exist. Teams of dentists, hygienists, assistants and students are volunteering to travel to the poorest places in the world in an effort to improve the dental health in those communities. There are dozens of organisations overseeing the volunteer effort in different parts of the globe. Tooth Mob works in Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory; Project Yeti works in Kathmandu; Equal Health is working in India; and Rotary has teams in Nepal, Vietnam, India and Timor Leste. While the challenges facing these volunteers seem almost insurmountable, the cumulative effect of their efforts is undoubtedly having a positive result. Carla Rando who works at Good Health Dentistry in Lindfield, NSW, volunteered to go to Nepal through Global Dental Relief in October last year. This hygienist graduated in 2011 and her trip to help the children of Kathmandu was her first visit to an undeveloped country.
She worked with dentists from the USA and Japan, hygienists from Australia and Canada, and a number of non-dental volunteers who helped with administration and organisation. Tasmanian dentist, Dr Richard Annis, has also taken part in one of Global Dental Relief’s Nepalese projects. “The project was set up in a boarding school and all the dental chairs were right next to each other,” Rando recalls. “The conditions were completely different to how we work in Australia. Patients were lined up all day and appointments were anywhere from five to 20 minutes for a full mouth debridement. Most of the patients were bussed in from the mountains for their first ever dental check-up. Some of the 16-year-olds had never had any dental care as it’s not accessible in the mountains.” While the dental professionals do what they can during their visit, it’s the training and resourcing of local people that has the most far-reaching effect.
Dr Sandra Meihubers is a Sydney dentist who volunteers through Rotary. “I worked in Aboriginal communities for a large portion of my career. I wanted to use those skills learned in remote Australia and apply them in other situations. My volunteer projects have been in Nepal and East Timor, and now I’m getting ready to go to Bangladesh.” Dr Meihubers is passionate about instituting local involvement through her volunteer work. “Most volunteer visits last an average of two weeks. A large part of our role is the professional support of local people and supplying as much training as we can. During our visit, we can provide an extra resource and maybe travel a bit further afield. The programs I work with are community-based prevention programs and sometimes we’ve had to ensure sanitation is established in schools—that is, the basics have to be in place before we even think about the dentistry.”
A common experience among the volunteers is the joy of interacting with the local population. Dr Blanche Tsetong has been involved with the Timor Leste program through Rotary since 2007. She takes a team over once a year for two weeks and they work closely with their Timorese partners, the local Carmelite nuns. “The Timorese are lovely, immensely dignified people,” says Dr Tsetong, who works at Shire Dental Centre in Miranda, New South Wales. “They have suffered so much and managed to come through it all with their heads up. Their enthusiasm to help their country is inspiring. We once met a new Timorese dental therapist—who we now mentor—working in a hospital and we noticed that he wasn’t getting paid. After his training, the government had a job for him, but no money to pay him. He wanted to help his people, so he volunteered to work for free as a dental therapist until they could afford to pay him. He did it for a whole year. I don’t know how—he seemed to be getting by on fresh air and sunshine.” Sad to say but Australia also has a dire need for volunteer dentists. In 2012, Dr David Baker had been coordinating emergency dental care in the Queensland Aboriginal community of Cherbourg during his last years at Griffith University. He won the Award for Outstanding Contribution to Indigenous Communities sponsored by Rural Health Workforce and the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO). He’s now working full-time at the Oral Expert Group in Toowoomba, Queensland, and is still involved with volunteer work. There are also a number of faith-based organisations running volunteer dental programs, usually as part of a general health initiative.
Dr Clare Chantler volunteers with the Christian Health Aid Team (CHAT) in Vietnam. They provide dental treatment for disadvantaged people with the priority extending to children. The cost of each project is funded by the volunteers and their support network in Australia. Initially, the services are provided by volunteer dental clinicians to orphanages but as the organisation evolves, it intends to recruit other volunteers from allied health professions to improve the well-being of these children and their carers. “On some days, the situation is a little overwhelming,” says Dr Chantler, a dentist working in Stirling, WA. “Seeing so much decay in deciduous teeth at such a young age, I questioned whether a single day trip to a particular place was going to improve the dental health of that community. However, the gratitude on these people’s faces is as plain as daylight; they try so hard to give their children the best future possible. I’d like to think that we are making a difference in these communities. We are trying our best to improve their oral health and I guess that’s all we can do.” It’s worth noting that volunteering isn’t for everyone. “If you’re one of those dentists who needs special tools and cannot cope with things going wrong then I don’t suggest you volunteer in a third-world country,” says Dr Blanche Tsetong. “But if you’re adaptable and want to help people to help themselves then it’s a great experience. It’s challenging, satisfying and fulfilling but it’s not a holiday.”
Dental professionals interested in volunteer work should visit the ADA’s website: www.ada.org.au/volunteers/dental_volunteers.aspx