Giving Thanks, One Smile at a Time by Dr. Chedly Schatzie Vincent

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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, Massachusetts

For those interested in learning more about Aspen's community relations activities, including trips like the one described in this article, please contact communityrelations@aspendental.com.

Author's Bio
Dr. Chedly Schatzie Vincent is the owner of two Aspen Dental practices in Fairfield and Norwalk, Connecticut.

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