Students provide dental care in Dominican Republic
Photos provided by Penn College's dental hygiene program
Students in Pennsylvania College of Technology’s dental hygiene program recently traveled to five remote villages in the Dominican Republic, where they provided oral-care services that are not usually easy to access.
For student Regan G. Kline, of Mechanicsburg, her thoughts continually returned to the Community Dental Health course she took this spring.
“We were learning about barriers to care such as lack of access to care, and I do not think I actually envisioned what this looks like until this trip to the Dominican Republic,” she said.
The five students making the trip were enrolled in the course Global Experience: Oral Healthcare Field Experience, taught by Rhonda J. Seebold, part-time instructor of dental hygiene. They were accompanied by Seebold and Patricia A. Durand, also a part-time dental hygiene instructor.
During their six-day stay in the Sosua area, the group provided dental care to 300 children and, in one of the villages, essentially the entire community.
They learned firsthand about the challenges of accessibility to health care, particularly as they traveled to their final clinic destination: a village that was only accessible by hiking, with equipment and supplies transported by donkey.
“From my previous college courses in the bachelor’s program, I have learned about global poverty, but actually seeing it in person is a different story,” said Addison J. Lesher, a student from Palmerton. “When I think about a community not having access to a dental clinic for hours, it doesn’t register as much as physically being there and taking the bus for a two-plus hour drive and then hiking over an hour up the mountain to serve the village. During the hike up the mountain, all I could think about was how difficult it must be for the community to have access to really anything.”
“To actually make the straight-up-and-straight-down hike that some people have to make in order to access basic living supplies … gave me a firsthand experience that helps me better understand the true meaning of barriers to care,” Kline added.
But for the residents, it is simply a way of life.
“The way they were so nonchalant about their situation made it easier for me to forget about how physically challenging it was to make it to the top,” Lesher said.
Students cited the benefits they gained from stretching their “comfort zones” – from traveling with new people to encountering language barriers, and from feeling underqualified to remaining flexible.
“The first day in the villages, I was very overwhelmed; I was very unsure what to do and how to help, but after seeing how kind and approachable everyone was, I knew I could ask any question I needed,” said Claudia D. Friskey, of Prospect Park. “After that first group, my nerves relaxed, and I found it easy to jump in at any station and help when needed.”
“The most important thing I learned is that you don’t need to be the smartest, most skilled or experienced person to help; God can use any hands that are willing to help,” said Chloe J. Nell, of Hanover.
They learned they were able to adapt quickly to unfamiliar and changing circumstances.
“Although I really appreciate a set schedule and clear-cut instructions, this experience pushed me out of my comfort zone and allowed me to figure out how to adapt to a new situation,” Lesher said.
They saw the impact a dental hygienist can have, both on a clinical and personal level, as they recalled experiences with individual patients. Friskey recounted the story of a girl, about 8 years old, who was visibly nervous as the team began evaluating her teeth and began shaking with fear as they placed silver diamine fluoride (used to prevent, slow or stop tooth decay).
“I gave her my hand to hold for the rest of the time while we did sealants and SDF. That calmed her, and she pushed herself through her fears,” Friskey said.
Nell relayed a story from the final workday when, as the team finished applying fluoride to the children, she asked a staff member if there were any children who hadn’t received the treatment. She learned that all the children had been treated, but a 16-year-old mother had asked if she could receive the fluoride varnish.
“I said, ‘Of course!’ and applied fluoride varnish to her teeth,” Nell said. “It was heartwarming to me to see that she was willing to receive the care that we had to offer and she valued what our team was doing.”
“It is so heartwarming to know that we were making a difference in the lives of those we treated,” Kline said – but the students note that the communities also made a difference in them.
“The one part that I loved the most was getting to eat lunch on top of the mountain with the entire village,” Lesher recalled. “I felt very accepted and loved at that moment. Having the community open their arms and let us strangers into their lives and share their culture with us was very heartwarming and special.”
She cited a new perspective on “challenges”: “Pre-trip, I would have listed the heat and humidity, going to the bathroom in rough conditions, and having to remember to brush with bottled water and keep my mouth closed in the shower. Also, I would have talked about the hike up the mountain. That was probably one of the hardest things I have ever done. However, post-trip me has reflected on the challenge of feeling guilty for what I have. Being able to pack up my suitcase and fly back home to my air-conditioned car and fully running toilets and safe drinking water seems like such a luxury now. I have been handling this by being more grateful for what I have and thinking about how I am going to continue to go on mission trips and provide what I can for those who are not as fortunate.”
“This trip was something I would never trade for anything,” Friskey concluded. “I learned so much about a new country, dental services, others and myself. I always knew when I toured Penn College I wanted to go on this trip, and after going, it exceeds my expectations.”
To learn more about dental hygiene at Penn College, call 570-327-4519.