Fresno campus DA instructor, Nancy Spruit, wanted for several years to travel to a remote area with the International Christian Organization, Help the Children, to provide dental care to those in dire need. But she had to wait until she had worked at SJVC long enough to get that extra 5-days of vacation in order to make the commitment.
This March Nancy joined nine SoCal dentists and 15-third year dental students from UCLA to fly to El Salvador, where they set up a temporary dental office inside a church in the city of San Salvador.
“They took all of the chairs out and we brought in portable dental units, a portable digital x-ray machine, sterilizer and enough supplies and equipment to provide all the normal services in a dental office,” says Nancy. “We did cleanings, extractions, fillings – both composite and amalgam – and even had one chair for root canals.”
The week-long service was hosted by the town’s local church, whose clergy notified the community the dental team was coming. Lines started forming early each morning and dental services were performed on a first-come, first-serve basis.
Although many of the patients were in their 30s, ages ranged from 3-years old to the very elderly.
“We did for each of them what was most important,” says Nancy. “We couldn’t restore their entire mouths because we needed to make sure that the majority of patients were seen. And, they could come back the next day and wait in line again for additional work.”
About half-way through the week the local media came out to film the humanitarian effort underway for their news channel. “After that, we had a lot more – many more than we could see every day,” says Nancy.
Sometimes families would sit outside in the shade all day, waiting for their turn. That ‘wait time’ turned out to be one of the most important aspects of this humanitarian effort, as the church’s clergy would take that opportunity to invite each person to their nightly church services. Many patients returned each evening to receive the church’s message and blessing.
At least half of the Help the Children dental team had participated in these dental care missions in previous years. Those students who were first-timers were excited to get to work on ‘live’ subjects, as that experience does not usually occur in their training to become dentists until the fourth year.
Nancy was the only Dental Assistant on the team and she found herself training a local volunteer who spoke no English, to use the sterilizer.
“I teach dental students how to use the machine, and here I am teaching without using words,” laughs Nancy. “It was interesting to work side-by-side with people and not even know their language.”
The hospitality of the church and the community was humbling. “The people in the church made themselves completely available to us,” says Nancy. “Ladies were making lunch for us all morning, and the last day they made us lunch and dinner. They had jobs and gave up their jobs to serve us.”
It was calculated that the dental team provided $113,000 in dental services to 235 people during their four days in El Salvador.
Everyone was so enthusiastic about the success of the mission. “All five student first-timers said they would come back after they graduate,” says Nancy.
As a first-time participant too, Nancy had her own unexpected realizations.
“My biggest takeaway was, I thought we were going to do dental treatment, and that was their biggest need,” she says. “These people had a spiritual need as well and I am happy to know that there was going to be a follow-up for that need in the church setting.”
Nancy felt a fusion of the team’s humanitarian services with the church’s spiritual mission.
“People in line had a spiritual experience, as well,” she says. “Several dental students made a commitment to their faith. It was bigger than a dental mission for me.”
Nancy is counting herself among those who are determined to make a return trip. “I would love to go back and hope I am able to.”
If you are interested in volunteering for this organization see ways to help on their website: www.helpthechildren.org.