By: Heather Benedet, Brigade Participant
Change for Children’s Dental Brigade to Comitancillo, Guatemala was a whirlwind adventure. Between TLC Family Dental and Oasis Family Dental, five team members, including Dr. Sharma, Heather, Nadia, Nicole and Tracy, travelled to the Guatemalan Highlands to provide free dental care to many children (and some adults) who are not able to obtain regular access to a dentist.
Working closely with AMMID, a local organization, we were able to visit four indigenous communities, as well as a clinic within Comitancillo itself, and provide dental care in make shift clinics that were set up inside of classrooms. AMMID was very well organized in terms of preparing for the clinics before we arrived by pre-screening those with dental concerns so that we were able to prioritize those with the greatest need. Once we were able to see all of the children (usually upwards of 100 a day), if time allowed, we would see the teachers and any of the locals who were in need.
After a day spent sightseeing in Antigua, we sat through a 7 hour truck ride (speed limits were often 40 km/hour, with many speed bumps on the highways), and we arrived in Comitancillo, and the hotel that we would call home for the next week. We soon discovered that we had one bathroom and one shower that would be shared between the seven of us staying on our floor. The fact that the shower had no hot water didn’t dampen our spirits; in fact it would turn out to be quite refreshing after a long clinic day.
We quickly fell into a routine on clinic days. Our morning wake up was at 5:45AM, and after preparing for the morning, we would walk to our breakfast, which was located at a restaurant about a five minute walk (uphill both ways) away from our hotel. Street vendors would be setting up shop for the day at 6AM, many of them squeezing fresh orange juice and heating up their grills for breakfast. Our hosts made sure we were well fed, serving us eggs, oatmeal, pancakes, granola, beans, as well as café con leche and an assortment of fresh fruits. After breakfast, we would walk back to our hotel and load up the trucks to take us to our clinic for the day.
The four indigenous communities that we visited were Chamaque, Tuixcajchis, Piedra de Feugo and Taltimiche. Every community was so grateful that we were there, that there was a presentation made by the school every morning. We would watch as children wearing traditional Guatemalan garments would perform traditional dances for us. Ruben, our local contact with AMMID would speak to the children, parents and teachers about how oral health is so important, and how limiting and eliminating the consumption of sugars (such as candy and soda) would help prevent tooth decay. Ironically, during one of these speeches, a truck carrying thousands of glass bottles of Coca Cola pulled up in front of the school, making a delivery to the shop across the street. Rori, a University of Toronto student, living in Comitancillo while doing her thesis, informed us that being able to afford sugar and sugary products was often a sign of wealth, which was why many were choosing to drink pop as opposed to water. At one point we witnessed a mother feeding her infant Coca Cola straight from the bottle. Dr. Sharma spoke with her and let her know how unhealthy that was. Each morning presentation also had the salute to the flag, followed by the Guatemalan national anthem, which runs at a lengthy five and a half minutes long.
After the morning festivities were completed, it was time to get to business. Dr. Sharma would start triaging the long line up that had already begun. While the three dentists were hoping that we would be able to save as many teeth as we could, it quickly became evident that the majority of our work would be extractions. The primary language spoken in the communities was Mam, and while the students were learning Spanish, we would often have to translate from English to Spanish to Mam and vice versa. Because of the malnourishment that many suffered from, the children were very small for the size. A six year old would be the average size of a three or four year old here in Canada. It was often hard to see how bombed out the teeth were on some of the children. Although many were scared of the uncertainty, and there were many tears, you had to remind yourself that you were there doing a service and you were helping to get the children out of pain, pain that they likely had lived with for a long time and became complacent with. We were also able to pick up on some Spanish phrases, such as “muy fuerte (very strong), so that we were able to provide some comfort to the children.
But it wasn’t all dentistry. We were able to learn some very cool Guatemalan traditions of the Mam people. Ruben invited us to his home to participate in a chuj. The chuj is a small room built adjacent to their home out of adobe bricks. The room is filled with smoke from burning logs, and hot coals that produce steam when water is poured out. It’s not your average sauna, it is a very-very-very hot and small space. The chuj is traditionally used every week to sweat out impurities and toxins and to rejuvenate yourself. When you come out of the chuj (even after your second venture in) you feel very relaxed. Our hosts had us drink a special tea made from herbs and plants grown around his house that helps regulate your body temperature. Although Guatemala is closer to the border, the highlands are quite high in altitude and temperatures are quite chilly during the early morning and evenings, so it is a little bit of a shock when you leave the super hot chuj and venture into the regular temperature outside.
It was hard leaving to go home. It was bittersweet saying goodbye to the people from AMMID who had worked so hard in organizing the brigade for us. The people of Comitancillo had beautiful hearts and treated us as family. They were so gracious, often giving us hugs after treatment had been completed. We hope to see many of them again in the future. It was also hard leaving because our flight out of Guatemala City was delayed 10 hours. We arrived back in Edmonton 24 hours later than we expected. The travel was exhausting, but the memories that we made are ones that will never be forgotten.