Last November, as so many Americans were getting ready to
celebrate Thanksgiving, four of my Aspen Dental colleagues and I
were preparing for something much different: a visit to one of our
nation's poorest neighbors to see how we could bring smiles back to
the Haitian people.
Haiti is the poorest country in the world that isn't located in
Africa; it is on the United Nations' list of "least-developed countries"
(with other such countries as Senegal, Chad, Yemen and
Mali) and Haitians on average live on less than $2 a day.
Many of us with Aspen Dental had followed the devastation
(more than 300,000 killed and a million left homeless) following
the 2010 earthquake, and we wondered whether Haitians had been
able to get any kind of dental care at all since then, especially when
they have lost the kinds of services that we take for granted – food,
clean water and shelter.
For me, the connection was deeply personal – both of my parents
were born in Haiti – and I had already spent time there following
the earthquake to rebuild homes through the not-for-profit
Restore Haiti. When my hosts learned that I was a dentist, they
begged me to return to provide care in a country suffering from a
painfully acute shortage of providers – according to one estimate,
Haiti has only 350 dentists, just one for every 100,000 people.
So in November 2012, I made good on my promise, recruiting
four colleagues from the Aspen Dental network to join me. All of
us saw the trip as a unique opportunity to take our mission of
bringing access to underserved communities to the global stage.
The five of us made the trek from the northeastern U.S. to Haiti with thousands of supplies packed into a dozen large boxes. We had everything we needed for general hygiene care and preventive dentistry, including kits for extractions and fillings, portable X-Ray machines, gauze, needles, sutures and antibiotics. We got help wherever we could find it – Aspen Dental Management, Inc., and Henry Schein both supported our trip with funding and logistics.
But, despite the months of planning and preparation, we never
could have imagined how much of a difference we could make.
After arriving at Port-au-Prince, we made a three-hour drive
southwest to the town of Jacmel. In conjunction with Restore
Haiti, we set up a neighborhood clinic to administer full dental
and oral treatment to those living there and in the surrounding
small towns. These towns generally don't have power or stable
water systems, but we made do with what was available.
We were quite a sight, unloading our boxes in the steamy
morning heat. As we began to unpack, the team created temporary
treatment stations in cinder-block rooms serving as our
clinic. By 9 a.m. patients started to line up. We knew we would
have a full clinic all day. As the first patients walked in, our generator
finally powered up. Purified water from five-gallon jugs
was used for procedures and to help sterilize instruments.
Patient after patient came in. We began seeing a trend of multiple
teeth and gum infections – the majority of patients had significant
decay and abscess. In the most extreme cases, we noticed
teeth already falling apart. One young girl had an abscess so
severe that the entire infected side of her face – including her eye
– was swollen terribly.
And that was just day one.
Through local interpreters, patients kept
telling us how much pain they were in. They were
beyond grateful we were able to help ease their
pain. While dozens of patients lined up each
morning to be examined, waiting for hours in the
heat, not one complained.
At one point, the power went out. We improvised
and switched into manual mode, and weren't
able to use any of the electrical instruments for the
rest of the day. While power is a constant challenge in Haiti, communicating
was also tricky. Creole and French are the official languages.
While many Haitians speak a little French, about 80
percent primarily use Creole to communicate. Luckily, I speak
French and that helped, but we still used translators to help the
rest of our group communicate. The people of Jacmel also
pitched in. Locals who spoke a little English helped interpret
information and communicate with our patients and we were
able to give them dental hygiene tips and provide information.
Sometimes we just used body language. And sometimes, just seeing
a patient smile let us know our message was getting through.
In less than a week, we saw over 500 people.
This is why I am a dentist. Not only can we help people, we
can change lives. On this trip, I felt our team was literally giving
people back their smiles. All of us on our Aspen team have a new
appreciation for our lives. We have an even greater sense of pride
in serving patients in need, both in this country and abroad.
I'll be going back this year and will be bringing even more of
my Aspen Dental colleagues along. Working together, there's no
telling the difference we can make.
Participants on the trip: Dr. Chedly Schatzie Vincent; Dr.
Jennifer Check of Monroeville, Pennsylvania; Marilyn Bartley,
RDH, of Norwalk, Connecticut; Marissa Leach, RDH of
Manchester, New Hampshire; and Dr. Ekta Sagar of Hanover,
For those interested in learning more about Aspen's community
relations activities, including trips like the one described in this
article, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.