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Fixing patients with floss, picks and pluck

From left, USC dental students Lyndsey Wang, Jose Soto, Kunle Ajanaku and Courtney Clayton in Kenya (Photos/Sean Vreeburg)

The following article is a firsthand account courtesy of Professor Mary Ellen Toffle of the University of Messina, Italy, and the USC Dental Humanitarian Outreach Project.

The line extended out the door and into the dusty street. Women, children, babies and toddlers, all clad in their best clothes, waited patiently. Trying to put on a brave face, some men shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other. Elsewhere, two boys experimented with the dental floss they just received.

An open-air structure with a single wall and three curtains that usually served as a local church had found a new function — it was transformed overnight into a dental clinic in Africa. Fifty-one dental professionals busily did their jobs in four USC mobile dental units and a temporary clinic created from a converted office. Kenyans of all ages sat in dental chairs as young dentists carefully prepared themselves to treat infection, gum disease and decay.

Just another job for the USC Dental Humanitarian Outreach Program (DHOP), this time in Nairobi, Kenya.

DHOP is a nonprofit, student-run organization that organizes multiple trips per year to serve the dental needs of impoverished communities in Colombia, Honduras and most recently Kenya. It provides cleanings, restorations and extractions to curb oral disease in these underserved populations.

According to dental student Sean Vreeburg, the goal is to offer the same standard of care provided at USC.

DHOP began in 2008 as a branch of the Dental Unit of the Global Medical Brigades. It broke off and became a separate organization run through USC. Vreeburg and classmate Marco Savittieri are co-founders and current co-presidents of the organization. They changed it from a club to an outreach humanitarian organization fully developed with a constitution, bylaws and a board of directors.

“It has been growing each year through donations of supplies, equipment and financial assistance, which has enabled us to go farther and treat more patients,” Vreeburg said as he directed students toward their respective mobile units. “The Kenya project is the largest so far.”

In addition to working on the management, planning and logistics, Vreeburg serves as country liaison and sets up the international projects while Savittieri is responsible for mobilizing and organizing the students who participate in the projects. In addition to humanitarian outreach, the organization also offers advanced dental education and other opportunities. The humanitarian outreach projects grew from 10 people in 2010 to 50 in 2012.

The project in Kenya, believed to be the largest dental outreach effort in the country’s history by the Kenya Ministry of Medical Services, took 10 months to organize, which proved to be a challenge since Vreeburg and Savittieri are full-time dental students at the university. Fortunately, a fellow student who had lived in Kenya was able to advise and assist with key connections, as well as deliver pre-departure, cross-cultural training.

Children and adults line up for free toothbrushes and toothpaste in Nairobi.

Assembling a team of 51 dental professionals and 37 support people wasn’t easy, however. Stateside challenges included risk management issues due to a 2012 bombing in Nairobi. After stringent risk analysis and additional security measures, plus various vaccinations against hepatitis A, yellow fever, typhoid and polio, the group was able to depart on time.

But that was not the end of the trials; all bags containing the USC mobile dental equipment didn’t arrive for two days. Another setback occurred when a transformer blew out and an entire area of Nairobi was blacked out due to the project’s use of power. The organizers had to go out and purchase a new generator for $1,500 on the spot.

Besides the Trojans, the team’s members arrived from China, Cuba, India, Iran, Jamaica, Japan, Korea, Lebanon, Mexico, Nicaragua, Taiwan and Vietnam, all working together to meet the needs of the people in Nairobi. The students received support from six dentists, including four from USC: Garner Beale, Koren Borland, Sanaz Fereshteh and Alain Toca.

Two other dentists donated their time and expertise: Robert Weinstein, a private practice oral surgeon, and Mike Hyodo, director of World Ministries International, who runs dental clinics in Nairobi.  The project was hosted by Mary Kamau and her husband, Wallace Kamau, founders and directors of Mission of Hope International, which partnered with Christian Ministries Fellowship. They arranged the location, set up the accommodations six months in advance, booked buses, security and eating arrangements, and prescreened the patients.

The cost of the project exceeded $130,000, which was quite low considering the magnitude of the project. According to Vreeburg, a partnership with Crest helped to raise half the funds, while the students themselves paid the other half. USC and Hyodo loaned the dental equipment.

“We [did] everything by USC standards,” Vreeburg said. “Every patient had X-rays, the treatment plans were checked by faculty, cleaning was verified by faculty — all the same procedure as at USC.”

The majority of the patients were local children who made their first dental visit. More than 95 percent of the adults treated had never received dental treatment. The team would leave by 7 a.m. for the long bus ride to the clinic and began working immediately on arrival.  The participants put in nine-hour days and were advised not to work after dark.

Six large boxes of toothbrushes, toothpaste and dental floss were waiting for patients. Children and adults eagerly accepted the gifts and asked for additional items for family members.

The preparation and hard work was a success.

“We do this because we get to help people in need, we get to learn more about other cultures and dentistry as a whole, and we also get to travel,” Vreeburg said. “And it’s a lot of fun.

“We were proud to offer the best quality care available in the world.”

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