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Work in Greek refugee camp transforms view of health care for students, faculty

Taking part in the mission were, top row from left: Joseph Gambacorta, assistant dean for clinical affairs in the dental school; Robert Davis, dental student; Charlotte Gambacorta, clerk supervisor in the dental school; James Harris, assistant dean in the dental school; Michael Melitzanis, volunteer dentist from Greece; Nicholas Young, Joe Gambacorta’s stepson. Bottow row from left: Caitlin Janusz, dental student; Ilyana Rahman, nursing student; Sara Perrone, dental student; Claire Gambacorta, Joe Gambacorta’s daughter. Photo: Suma Hussien/DocMobile

By MARCENE ROBINSON

Published September 6, 2017

“Regardless of your opinion on the matter of refugees, everyone is human and deserves to have the same opportunities for medical and dental care.”
Sara Perrone, student
School of Dental Medicine

Before returning to campus for their first week of classes, nine UB nursing and dental students traveled 5,000 miles to the Greek island of Lesvos to take part in an experience that can’t be recreated in a lab or lecture hall.

The students, along with several UB faculty and staff members, journeyed across the world to provide free screenings and emergency dental and health care to hundreds of refugees displaced by the civil war in Syria and ongoing conflict in the Middle East.

The weeklong humanitarian mission, which began July 26, was a partnership between the UB’s schools of Dental Medicine and Nursing; the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences, whose students and faculty treated refugees affected by PTSD; and DocMobile, a non-governmental organization (NGO) providing medical care to remote areas of Greece.

“Regardless of your opinion on the matter of refugees, everyone is human and deserves to have the same opportunities for medical and dental care,” says dental student Sara Perrone.

“Dentistry was the type of help I was able to offer, and I’m happy that I was able to do something about the crisis other than read about it in the news.”

Added Ilyana Rahman, a student earning her Doctor in Nursing Practice (DNP): “This experience provides students with the ability to respond to a global crisis and not sit idle while waiting for the crisis to resolve itself.”

The Moria camp, the temporary home for thousands of refugees, has made headlines for its horrendous living conditions.

Molli Oldenburg Warunek, clinical assistant professor in nursing, tends to a patient. Suma Hussien/DocMobile

The UB mission marked the first dental care received by refugees living in the camp in more than a month, and the first time the area was visited by advanced practice nurses.

Nursing students, faculty and staff set up a clinic in the form of an urgent care setting to treat pressing medical issues that ranged from orthopedic injuries and stomach inflammation to ear infections, head lice and scabies. Anxiety was also addressed through relaxation and breathing exercises.

Their counterparts in the School of Dental Medicine worked from a portable dental unit that provided them access to water and suction. Cleanings, fillings and extractions were performed to treat cavities, the most common oral health need among the refugees. Because it was not known when a dentist would again visit the camp, teeth with large cavities were pulled.

Children received fluoride treatments, toothbrushes and toothpaste, and were instructed on oral hygiene. Faculty also trained medical volunteers at the camp to apply fluoride varnish, and donated medical supplies and equipment so that the treatment would remain sustainable.

But the greatest gift the students provided to the refugees was the glimpse of hope that someone cared about their condition, says Molli Oldenburg Warunek, clinical assistant professor of nursing who traveled with the group.

“I don’t think it was the dental care that was the most memorable part of the trip. It was seeing the children interact,” Perrone says. “We didn’t speak the same language, but we could still play with the kids while their families were getting checked out. They were so happy to have someone to hang out with and not worry about what’s going on with their home situation.”

Adds Linda Paine Hughes, clinical assistant professor of nursing who also traveled to Greece: “Being treated as human beings rather than refugees can be a life-changing experience for the individual.”

The collaborative program between the School of Nursing and School of Dental Medicine also provided students with experience working in a stressful environment with limited resources, as well as a new appreciation for treating patients with cultural humility.

“We exposed the students to a world crisis and gave them the opportunity to work first-hand with NGOs and refugees while also improving their quality of life,” notes Joseph Gambacorta, assistant dean for clinical affairs in the School of Dental Medicine who led the team of dental students.

The next step, says Tammy Austin-Ketch, clinical professor and assistant dean for MS/DNP programs in the School of Nursing, is to pay it forward.

“This global humanitarian health experience encourages students to culturally immerse themselves,” she explains. “They can then bring back information that can be used in practice to enhance care in Western New York immigrant populations, inspire other students to go on future missions and raise awareness of the problems facing refugees around the globe.”