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Dominican Republic, Canadian Dental Relief International, and Hopes for the FutureA Dentistry Student's Experience

Posted on 13 December 2015 by Matthew R. Kreher

People who visit the Dominican Republic think of resorts, snorkelling and beautiful beaches. They think of friendly, smiling people and shops for tourists to buy souvenirs.  When the plane touches down on the runway and you step onto the tarmac, you are greeted by a wave of warmth.  Palm trees wave hello in the light breeze. I have a different memory.  We were carting loads of dental supplies with us from Canada. I was travelling with the Canadian Dental Relief International, a group of dentists who decided to start giving back to the global community in the form of free dental care.

The first evening we set up temporary dental units and chairs, organized tools and supplies, and met the resident health care worker who had been providing rudimentary dental care thus far.  Over the course of only two weeks, her education had advanced in the areas of accurate anaesthetic delivery, optimal extractions methods and basic oral hygiene instructions.

We would arrive at the clinic day after day to lines of people coming from kilometers away. The people would wait at the clinic doors all day for toothache and infection relief. It was an intense and productive period of time where hundreds of patients were treated and a local health-care worker was trained.  All this was in the backdrop of beautiful, Caribbean sunsets and an armed guard to protect our sleeping quarters.  It was a country of poignant contrasts.  In hindsight, the people of the town were living in luxury compared to the depths of poverty I was to come across later on during the trip…

I remember the ride along a bumpy dirt road.  Dust created a veil in front of the surrounding landscape.  There were wide, rolling plains covered with tall green shoots.  The curious plants looked like a cross between corn stalks and bamboo.  These were sugar cane fields.  I liked it because it was exotic and because the crop stood so tall.  I imagined running through the stalks and getting lost in the maze.  There was a woody yet sweet smell in the air that was enjoyable save for the occasional intermingling of the car exhaust fumes.  The dirt road came to an end at the Batey.  This was a small village where the sugar cane workers lived.  Many of the workers were migrants from Haiti.  The men in the village spoke about their long days harvesting sugar cane.  They were friendly people but tired as well.  There were no doctors to provide care for them if they became sick. Canada, with dirt floors.  That was it.  That was the house built for a family of six.  The roof was low, too low for an adult to stand beneath without bowing their necks. There were some branches strung together outside to form a clothes line. So it went as we passed from abode to abode.  A ramshackle camp strung together with whatever buildings materials had been scavenged from wherever they had been scavenged.  There was a concrete cylinder in the center of town that housed the water supply for everyone at the Batey.  None of the shacks had running water or toilets.  They were just rooms.  Beside the water tank and in the center of town stood the single well-constructed building, which was a church.  I was struck by a sense of irony, but who was I to judge.  Whatever gets you through the day…or the life as it were…

After a tour we came to our purpose at the Batey. At the school, we presented posters and acted out skits for the children explaining the detriments of pop and candy on the teeth. I remember the kids laughing and playing games with one another. I couldn’t help but thinking that they were innocent to the truths of their poverty.  Perhaps innocence negated their poverty, at least until the point that their hunger pains began.

Looking out upon a vast field of sugar cane one was struck by the thought:  If we paid a dollar more per bag of sugar cane to help these people, would we do it?  Would the money get to them? Would their lives improve? The small act of adding a tablespoon of sugar to my tea was a silent acceptance of the servitude of men in foreign lands.  So the story goes, from the clothes we buy to the foods we eat, we are confronted with an Everest of serfdom.

I left the Batey, and the Dominican Republic with the same poignant contrast she loved to impart.  Mixed with the melancholy and overwhelming sense of powerlessness, my empathy and awareness for the difficulties of the world grew.  Balance what we take with what we give back.  You don’t have to look hard to find people in need.  As health professionals we have struggled to the top of a mountain for the privilege of a skillset that can help the world, it is our obligation to try where and when we can.

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