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El Regalo de una Sonrisa (The Gift of a Smile)

Dental students treat patients in Mexico

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Leslie Capo

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“The purpose of life is to discover your gift; the work of life is to develop it; and the meaning of life is to give your gift away.” — David Viscott

Over their summer break, fifteen rising 4th-year LSU Health New Orleans dental students traveled to Atoyac de Alvarez, a village in Guerrero in southwest Mexico, to volunteer their time and skills to those in need. They were the latest group of LSU Health dental students to go to Clinica Betel since alumni Drs. Jerome Smith (‘80) and Carl Breaux (‘82) made the first of what would be many trips the week of Thanksgiving 1991.

“In association with Rev. Larry Myers, a lone missionary and one of my patients, this began a health care mission which has blossomed greatly, largely due to volunteer graduates of LSU Health New Orleans School of Dentistry as well as LSU Health School of Medicine,” says Dr. Smith. “What began as a clinic for extractions eventually grew into a fully functioning dental facility, a hospital complete with three state-of-the-art operating suites including a recovery room and rooms for overnight stays, as well as optometry clinic, along with dorms for the volunteers.”

This year’s students – Zachary Tanenbaum, Corey Romero, Matt Henson, Dayton Prudhomme, Tyler Mesa, Eddie Starr, Dominic Calato, Shawn Boudreaux, Melanie Hebert, Loreno Romano, Rebecca Stith, Erin Moore, Ellyn Marks, Hannah Knott and Kaleigh Redhead – went with Dr. Danny Domingue (‘07). This year marked the 20th anniversary of his first trip with Smith, his uncle.

The volunteers set up “clinics” on outdoor basketball courts in villages about an hour away from Clinica Betel, in the mountainous Mexican countryside.

LSU Health dental students in Mexico
“Each morning, we set up our portable dental ‘clinic’ aluminum canopy,” notes Dr. Domingue. “With the use of a diesel generator to power our hand pieces, we were up and running at full speed within a matter of minutes.”

The hours were long, averaging 12 hours a day, with no time to take a break from the intense heat or anxious patients waiting to be seen. The state government had publicized the days so people in the surrounding villages would know to come.

LSU Health dental students in Mexico

“We saw mostly women and children,” says Zachary Tanenbaum, a member of LSU Health New Orleans DDS Class of 2018 from New Orleans. “We extracted teeth, did fillings, gave oral hygiene instructions and cleaned teeth. My most difficult case was a molar root canal I performed in the heat with a fan on me.”

Classmate Lorena Romano, originally from Colombia, South America, remembers, “We had limited equipment and had to improvise sometimes. The patients had a lot of work to be done, but since we had so many patients, we often had to make some tough decisions and only take care of the most serious problem.”

“The suction didn’t work very well, so we had to give each patient a cup to spit, or ‘escupe’ into,” recalls fellow student Erin Moore, who hails from Westlake, Louisiana. “One lady heard we were there and walked two hours to get to us.”

Students learned to adapt, work fast and excel at new experiences. “It was difficult to work on patients sitting in lawn chairs instead of dental chairs,” says dental student Dayton Prudhomme, from Loranger, Louisiana. “It taught me speed and a greater appreciation for the little things we take for granted in the United States.”

“I had to extract primary teeth on a 2 year-old boy,” says Corey Romero, a dental student from Alexandria who helped organize the trip. “Dad had to hold the patient down and in a head lock while a classmate assisted me in keeping the patient’s mouth open. I had to extract multiple teeth in less than 30 seconds. It was tough to do, but it was also tough to see the poor quality of life there, seeing a kid so young with as much dental decay as he had and knowing that although he certainly needed the teeth extracted to remove and prevent infection, prematurely losing those teeth meant future problems for his oral health.”

Despite the grueling schedule, there was a little time to explore the local culture. The government leaders who helped organize things gave the group a tour that included a visit to their mango factory, a large global mango distribution center.

LSU Health dental students in Mexico
“We. Ate. So. Much. Mango,” relates Romero. “We had mango with everything. The factory also happened to be an iguana farm, and they walked us around to find iguanas. We were naively looking down, when suddenly huge, 3-foot-long iguanas jumped from the coconut trees and ran all around our feet. We all panicked while the factory workers laughed.”

“We had a family from the community bring us an iguana to eat one day,” reminisces Romano. “We did not know what to do or say, but it was basically our only food that day.”

“Let’s just say it wasn’t my favorite, but the facial expressions were priceless,” adds classmate Hannah Knott from Carencro, LA.

In all, the volunteers treated more than 450 patients of all ages during those few days.

LSU Health dental students in Mexico
“We made a difference in so many individuals’ lives in such a short amount of time,” says Prudhomme.

The rewards were many.

“Despite the fact that I speak very little Spanish and the vast majority of my patients could not speak English, we undoubtedly connected as human beings,” reflects Knott. “My patients were so grateful, hugged me after the procedures, invited me into their homes, and one even returned to bring me a gift – a handmade pillow.”

“It was rewarding seeing how quickly we can change someone’s life and how many people truly need our help and benefit from our skill sets. It also made us all reflect on the privileges we take for granted so often,” says Romero.

“Seeing our patients out of pain or in better oral health was very rewarding,” says Romano.

“The patients were so gracious,” recalls Moore.

“The experience that these students get in a week’s time in the clinic as well as in our makeshift clinics up in the mountains is certainly one that they’ll never forget,” says Smith.

And its influence will be felt far beyond the immediate boost to their confidence.

Atoyac de Alvarez
“This trip confirmed that I want to make service trips when I graduate and bring students with me,” concludes Tanenbaum. “I have two buddies who went to LSU Health med, and we have already started talking about doing a joint medical/dental service trip.”