A long-lasting impact

March 21, 2012

Whether asked to hold a light, run to get cotton swabs or suction a patient’s mouth, Gina Durkin was happy to help in any way she could as a member of an American team of dental professionals and students that recently visited Nicaragua. 

Whether asked to hold a light, run to get cotton swabs or suction a patient’s mouth, Gina Durkin was happy to help in any way she could as a member of an American team of dental professionals and students that recently visited Nicaragua. 

“We saw one patient after the next in the sweltering heat. But no one complained,” said Durkin who traveled as part of a 50-person group that went to impoverished neighborhoods of the country’s most populous city, Managua, as well as to a hospital to provide dental care to burn victims and into mountainous rural areas.

“We went to the poorest of the poor areas in Managua,” Durkin said. “I just did whatever I could.”

Durkin, a product manager for GC America, global dental product manufacturer, volunteered to go on the trip because her company provided most of the supplies for the mission including bonding agents, curing lights, sterilization products, composite materials and more.  

The trip was organized by Foundation for Worldwide Health, a non-profit dedicated to solving the problem of endemic poverty and promoting total community health for communities it serves in underdeveloped countries.

The foundation has sponsoring the Nicaraguan trip for the past 12 years. Dr. Brian Novy, an assistant professor of restorative dentistry at Loma Linda University in Loma Linda, CA has participated in the trip for the past six years.

He said the group goes back again and again to Nicaragua because they want to build relationships and have a long-lasting impact.

“It makes no sense to go in a pick up and leave and go to a new location,” he said.

Upon arrival, the group split into teams with different assignments. One of the teams set up a clinic outside the city dump where people go to scavenge for food.

“It’s like looking at the gates of hell,” Novy said. “There was black smoke from the plastic burning and a lot of flies.”

Another clinic was set up in a church, which was where Durkin worked part of the time. From 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. she said the group, which included dental students from Loma Linda University, would see about 40 patients a day. The patients had already set up appointments via the church or some dropped in.

“They came in their Sunday best,” said Durkin, noting that many of the people who were treated were having teeth extracted.

In addition to the clinics at the church and city dump, members of the group treated children with special needs and others-mostly children-- who were hospitalized for burns.

“People cook over open fires in one-room huts and children can roll over into the fires and get badly injured,” said Novy, adding that it makes sense to do full mouth dentistry while the patients are in the hospital.

The dental mission trip provides experience for the American students who Novy said “work non-stop, 10-hours a day. They’re troopers.”

Another goal of the mission is to provide training for Nicaraguan dentists and dental students so they can then use what they’ve learned when they treat patients. The idea is that by imparting their knowledge the mission’s impact will not end when the dentists and students return to the U.S. 

Without the products provided by GC America, Novy said the trip would not be nearly as effective.

“What they provide just blows me away,” he said. “Without their donation each year we wouldn’t be able to do the quality of dentistry that we do.”

Novy said one of the more touching incidents involved a young boy who had had a chipped tooth repaired and then went to play soccer and chipped it again. The boy so happy when Novy fixed it again “that he got me a soda and gave me a big hug,” Novy said.

Durkin said she would like to learn Spanish so that she can go again on a trip and be able to communicate effectively with patients. Novy said he will do more mission trips and possibly even set up a permanent clinic in Nicaragua.

“These patients are so happy for anything you do,” he said. “They’re so grateful.”