This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

Students travel abroad to provide dental care

Published: January 13, 2005

Reporter Contributor

Students in the School of Dental Medicine are traveling abroad to help people in need of dental care as part of the dental school's Buffalo Outreach to Central America (BOCA) program.

UB delegations have gone to Guatemala, the Dominican Republic and locations in Appalachia to provide dental care for those who do not have access to the simple procedures that most Americans take for granted.

During the most recent BOCA expedition, 12 dental students, four participants in the dental school's Advanced Education in General Dentistry (AEGD) Program, a registered nurse and four dental school faculty members spent a week in Belize last summer, providing dental care to inmates at the Central Belize Prison and to residents of the Village of Ladyville. They cleaned teeth, filled cavities and extracted problem teeth. Delegation members also conducted tests for hypertension, diabetes and pterygium; an eye disorder common to residents of Central America.

Interest in the BOCA program is growing among students, notes Jude A. Fabiano, clinical associate professor in the Department of Restorative Dentistry and director of the AEGD Program, which provides advanced training in clinical dentistry and applied basic and behavioral sciences. While all students who want to participate have been able to do so, that may not be possible in the future, Fabiano says.

"With increased student interest this year, we may not be able to take all students and we would give preference to upperclassmen," since senior dental students receive academic credit for participating in the missions, he points out.

Most students pay their own expenses related to the mission, although many apply for extra loans to help defray the costs, Fabiano says. BOCA also sponsors fundraisers to help students with costs.

As part of the Belize mission, each student spent two days each working at the prison and at a Ladyville clinic. Participants cared for 535 patients, restoring 540 dental surfaces and removing 150 teeth. More than $85,000 worth of dental care was provided to the patients, Fabiano says.

He explains how the BOCA mission to Belize came about.

"Dr. Yoly Gonzales, an SDM faculty member, knows a dentist, Dr. John Look, who has strong contacts in Belize," he says. "Through Dr. Look, we arranged the mission to Belize." Elaine Davis, associate professor in the Department of Oral Diagnostic Sciences and associate dean for student affairs in the dental school, and Sandra Flash, director of the UB Study Abroad Programs, helped with the actual planning of the mission.

Fabiano calls the trip "very rewarding."

"The students were especially gratified through their experiences treating the inmates at the Central Belize Prison," he says. "It should be noted that prior to this experience, several students voiced concern about going into a prison to treat inmates. After the experience (in Belize), (several students) said they'd do it again."

Joshua Hutter, an SDM senior who previously had participated in a dental mission to a Native American reservation in Wisconsin through the U.S Department of Health and Human Services, calls the Belize mission "truly remarkable."

"There was a beauty there unparalleled to anything else I have seen before," Hutter says. "I had the opportunity to experience waterfalls, the rainforest, the bluest water, Mayan ruins, caves containing human remains and the best sunset I have ever seen in my lifetime."

Ian Malo, a senior dental student, notes how "extremely hot" the weather was, yet says the mission was an "extremely rewarding experience."

"The attitudes of everybody were extremely positive—from the administration right down to the patients," he says. "I've never felt so gratified in my profession."

Hutter agrees that the patients appreciated the dental students' efforts.

"The Belizean people were shy at the start, but immediately warmed up to us," he recalls. "In fact, the inmates at the Belize Central Prison were some of the most congenial people I have ever met. Their history of illegal activities was overshadowed by the appreciation and respect they showed to us. By far, they were the most appreciative group of people I have ever worked on during my career in dentistry."

The students' decisions to get involved with the BOCA program were very heart-felt and action-based. Hutter says he wanted to use his dental skills to do something for the "have-nots."

"Something so simple as dental care is viewed more as a luxury rather than a necessity," he says. "Unfortunately across the world, the disparity of oral health care is tremendous and overlooked. It was because of this that I felt the necessity and desire to share my skills with the most needy. I truly wanted to do something for the good of a person, rather than a grade for a class. I figured that using my talents to really help out the less fortunate could be one of the most rewarding things I could do during my entire life."

The students also say they experienced a greater appreciation for what they have.

"I felt it was a great service to provide to an otherwise grossly underserved people," Malo says. "I took with me a new understanding of dental care, what it means to me and what it can mean to other people. Compassion and understanding are words that I now truly understand."

Hutter says the experience brought him a "more defined role of his purpose in life." He sums up the mission by relating a story about his personal experience with one of the patients.

"He was a middle-aged male, imprisoned for quite some time," Hutter says. "He was involved in a fight at the prison with another inmate. He presented four cracked teeth—all in his upper front. He was definitely not apt to smile, and talking seemed to embarrass him. I worked on him for quite some time with very involved work—esthetic restoring, recontouring and bonding. By the end, he honestly looked like nothing had happened. He was shocked when he saw the results. He literally stared in a mirror for over 15 minutes, making all the various facial expressions, like smiling and frowning. He left with the biggest smile on his face and a walk of confidence—all after he hugged me. It wasn't something that many people would expect from a "prisoner"—that's for sure!"

The BOCA program has proven to be such a success that the dental school is planning a mission in the coming year to Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic. Fabiano said there is a great need for dental care there, particularly in several orphanages for developmentally disabled children.

In addition to Hutter and Malo, other participants in the Belize mission were David Bennett, Alexandra Cernasov, Adam Chalom, Zhi Wei Cheung, Michael Krzemien, Sunny Leong, Shirin Mashhoon, Christopher Steed, Mengyu Tsai and Praveen Verghese, all SDM students; Anthony Chan, Aaron Siu, Sam Yeh and Melanie Yu, residents in the AEGD program, and faculty members Jane Brewer, Jude Fabiano, Raymond Niceforo and Dian Wells.