I have mostly fond memories of visiting the dentist as a child. My mom always took me for ice cream afterwards, I always, always, left with a shiny new ring, and I was proud of my polaroid photo displayed prominently in the No Cavity Club.
While there are no ice cream shops located next door to our makeshift dental clinics in the classrooms of schools in remote communities in the hills of the Guatemala countryside, many patients come with their own sweet treats of Coca-Cola and cookies in tow. The blackened and rapidly decaying baby teeth of young children bear the evidence that despite our seemingly remote location, sweets are commonplace, low-cost, and consumed in vast quantities.
Each child, visiting the dentist for the very first time, one braver than the next, sits in a school chair to receive local anesthetic. They crawl up on table tops covered by plastic and squeeze the hands of the people bearing the smiles they have only recently met.
And for their bravery, they are rewarded. In addition to a shiny new ring or a bouncy ball or bubbles (the going favourite), patients are awarded relief of pain and treatment of infection. Driven by the opportunity to use their skills to improve quality of life in the remote communities we visit, the team works tirelessly to see hundreds of patients each day. The need is great. Membership in the No Cavity Club, should it exist, would be extremely low.
But this is why we are here.
And despite arriving to infants on the backs of mothers, brothers and sisters boasting baby bottles filled with a brown liquid with a troubling resemblance to Coca-Cola (or could it be coffee), both disturbingly cheaper than water, we leave nevertheless encouraged.
We are encouraged by school administrators embracing the oral health education support offered by volunteers. We are encouraged by groups of children who gather to learn how to properly brush their teeth and who respond loud and clear in a chorus of, “Tres veces cada dia!” (“three times every day!”) when quizzed. We are encouraged by parents and teachers embracing new ideas.
We are encouraged by the receptiveness of community members to seize opportunities to better the health of their families, not only today, but going forward.
At this, we smile.