A Day In The Life Of A Volunteer Dentist In Ecuador

Over the past summers of 2009-2011, my family and I have participated in a healthcare mission to treat children in Ecuador. Since I enjoy speaking Spanish, being in a Hispanic culture, and providing service through dentistry, I decided to participate in a healthcare mission, “Causes For Change International.”

Andrew, Joel and Lynn Sanders in Ecuador

The mission is led by Zully Alvarado, who grew in Ecuador as an impoverished child who barely survived polio. Through her commitment to help the children in Ecuador, thousands of children’s lives have been helped through Causes For Change International. Although the organization has existed for over a decade, it’s still relatively unknown, and continues needing medical and dental volunteers.

As I grew in my understanding of the organization, I came to realize it faced many needs beyond finding medical and dental care professionals. Our family became actively involved in fundraising for supplies and other necessities – from simple items like toothbrushes to the anesthetic used in the dental treatment.

In the summer of 2011, my son Andrew, my wife Lynn and I encountered some unique challenges. It was the first time I was the only participating dentist. With the help of Miranda, a wonderful dental hygienist, we provided cleanings, exams and treatment to hundreds of children over nine days.

The process was exhausting – mentally, emotionally and physically. We traveled into remote towns where healthcare is not available. Without electricity, I was only able to use manual dental instruments to remove broken and infected teeth. We worked until darkness made it impossible to continue.

Joel teaches tooth brushing skills to Ecuadorian children.

Our son Andrew taught children how to brush their teeth, and then passed out the toothbrushes to over 1000 children. In most cases, these were the only toothbrushes that children (and families) would have! One toothbrush could serve the whole family!

With a borrowed guitar, my wife, Lynn, provided musical entertainment for hundreds of children each day. She kept them occupied — singing songs, moving to the music, playing games, and coloring in the 90-degree heat. It kept those waiting for our treatment distracted and happy. The adults enjoyed it too!

Joel with two patients in Posorja

Many people have expressed their appreciation for my volunteer efforts. I don’t feel I need a thank you. I’m so grateful for the opportunity… not only for myself, but for everyone that participates. I wish every person could have the experience I’ve had. The healthcare missions gave me the chance to recognize a greater perspective about what’s really important in life… helping humanity. After all, we’re all connected.

Last summer, we met Michelle Christian Corp, an actress from California, who shared her thoughts with us. What she had to say sums it all up,

“What I learned more than anything about this experience is that when I look into the face of an individual whether male or female, whatever race or religion, whether old or young, I saw myself. I learned that the light shines in all of us regardless of whee we live or what we are living with. It is the connection. The communion with one another.”

Each year, I have one significant patient experience that stands out in my memory.

One of my most meaningful experiences took place in an isolated village, surrounded by dense jungle. Before us stood the typical Ecuadorian mission-style school. One floor with a central courtyard, flagpole in the middle, and classrooms on the periphery. Metal grillwork covered each window to keep animals out. However, bugs and all manner of creepy, crawly things had access to every corner of space.

Let me check your mouth...

Volunteers set up tables for each healthcare specialty in the different classrooms of the school. The children would rotate from one room to the next, as needed. At that time, I was in the dental room with another dentist from Pennsylvania. Although most of the children we treat are of elementary school age, this teenage boy was about 17 years old. Javier faced a dental emergency. In that village, many of the children had physical disabilities. Javier was deaf and unable to speak.

Like other children with disabilities in Ecuador, there are no facilities for treatment, ongoing care or education. Disabled children have no choice but to stay at home.

After examining Javier’s mouth, I knew his case was extremely difficult. He had an extremely broken down molar, and the fragments of root tip remaining extended into the sinus. Without x-rays, I was unable to discern their shape and location.

At home, I would not have attempted the surgery. It would have been referred to a specialist. But in Ecuador, there was no one else available. If I didn’t try to help him, Javier would remain in pain and develop further complications. Javier’s mother told me he had never gone to school. “How do you communicate?” I asked. I didn’t know how to explain anything to him.

Imagine trying to explain anesthesia to a rural Ecuadorian woman, who had never experienced it. Then, have her explain that concept to her son who is deaf.
She would take Javier’s head in her hands, look him directly in the eye, and send her thoughts to him. Javier may have also had some rudimentary lip-reading skills. At the end of each thought exchange, he would nod his head in understanding.

Initially, I was reluctant to proceed. However, a town official told me if I didn’t do it, Javier would be unable to go for treatment. Even if he and his mother could get to the city, they had no means to pay for the necessary dental work.

Needless to say, I went ahead with the extraction. It was one of the most intense experiences I’ve had in my dental career. It was only through Grace that I was able to successfully remove the abscessed tooth. Javier did not make a sound during the entire forty minutes of intense dental surgery.

Afterwards, I told his mother to thank her son for his bravery and cooperation. I was mentally, emotionally and physically exhausted. Javier’s mother related what I said by looking deeply into his eyes. Javier turned towards me with a big smile and gave me a “thumbs-up.” It was the most rewarding experience of my trip!

Helping humanity is really the essence of the healthcare missions. To be a part of something bigger than myself. To make a difference to those in need. And to touch people’s lives in a selfless cause is transforming. I always come back with so much more… and feel grateful for the opportunity.

1 thought on “A Day In The Life Of A Volunteer Dentist In Ecuador”

  1. Dear Dr. Sanders,

    What a remarkable story and kudos to you for your generosity. People like you truly make a difference in the world.

    I too have had the good fortune to be able to experience similar events in Paraguay, Iraq and in the Caribbean.

    I am very interested in volunteering in Ecuador, which is how I came across your blog. I have reached out to Zully Alvarado and await her response.

    If you know of any upcoming events in Ecuador or of anyone else looking for a volunteer dentist ini the near future, please feel free to forward my contact info.

    Frank DeQuattro, DMD
    24 Salt Pond Road, suite C-1
    Wakefield, RI, USA 02879
    phone 401-783-9890
    mobile 401-595-9599

    Thank you and God bless you for your service,

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