Oral Health Group

Changing Smiles, Improving Lives: Amongst the Despair… Dignity

June 1, 2003
by Lisa Philp, RDH, CMC and Angela Best, RDH

This group, led by Dr. Ray Hazen and Chris Haussman has been involved for seven years in mission service through an organization called The Parish Twinning Programs of America. It is an organization that matches an adoption/sponsorship-type relationship between a North American parish and a Haitian parish. More than 300 twinning programs have been arranged since it was founded 18 years ago.

Our initial intent for joining the group was to give back to our profession of dental hygiene with this Indiana group in need of dental hygiene services on their annual trip. We were excited about the chance to give our time and energy to provide oral health care services to the underprivileged. Little did we know the significant impact our decision would have both professionally, and personally, in our hearts, minds, and spirits, and that we would return home overwhelmed with gratitude for the basic necessities of life we enjoy in Canada.


Haiti is a country of just more than seven million people. Eighty percent live in poverty, surviving on less than one dollar a day. One percent of the population controls 45 percent of the wealth. The average life expectancy is 50 years of age, with one-in-three infants dying within the first year of life. Literacy, defined as those over the age of 15 who can read and write, is only 45 percent. Due to its fight for independence as a black republic, political violence and unrest has plagued Haiti. It is considered one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere.

Contrasts are plentiful. Haiti offers tropical vegetation and coastline, mountainous terrain, and semiarid temperatures. The destruction caused by the return of democracy in 1985 prevents the Haitian people from accessing the most basic of survival needs including food, shelter, and clean water. Electricity is sporadic at best, and is provided to the Haitians in 12-hour intervals or on select days of the week. The darkness is overwhelming as the people fight for light using loud generators and roadside wood-burning fires. It was shocking to hear the night-time noise that poverty creates. We heard chanting voodoo bands, screeching roosters, yelping dogs, and backfiring Tap Taps, (a covered pickup truck that serves as the Haitian version of a taxi). Each night we placed our ear plugs and attempted sleep to be woken by loud bangs that we all secretly hoped was someone shooting the howling dogs and screeching roosters with a tranquilizer gun.

The buzz of the Saturday market, where people gather to trade necessities and solicit relief from a mundane existence, is as busy and as colorful as any local flea market. People stretch out their hands to attract and tempt you into buying their wares. Bags of rice, onions, leeks, dried beans, sun-roasted coffee, unplucked chickens, pigs, goats, batteries, and used tennis shoes. This is their center of social, political, and economic life all rolled together.

Our group, consisting of three dentists, three dental assistants, two dental hygienists and six non-dental professionals, began our journey at Port-au-Prince airport where we met the translators who would accompany us. We traveled in 4x4s, for six to eight hours up mountainous, gravel roads to a village called Beledere. We had 30 duffel bags of supplies, three cardboard dental chairs, two portable Adec dental units and thousands of toothbrushes for all ages. We were greeted by Father Paul beaming with gratitude and hospitality with a full course meal consisting of rice, beans, goat and salad, washed in bleach water.

On cement floors in the parish rectory, we set up our dental clinic. It consisted of a triage area complete with flashlight, blood pressure screening station, pharmacy, and cold-soak, infection-control table. Our treatment areas consisted of an injection bench, five dental chairs, two of which were dedicated to extractions, one adec unit with compression and suction dedicated to fillings, and two hygiene stations inclusive of a lawn chair for separate fluoride treatments. We were ready for whatever came our way regarding pathology, diseases, or dental conditions.

Each day, hundreds of Haitians who were selected members of the 11 parishes the priest served began lining up at daylight. They were dressed in their Sunday attire, having walked several hours from their native village to have their teeth removed, filled or cleaned. At first it was heartbreaking to witness the malnourishment and dehydration apparent in their physical beings, the defeat in their eyes and the overall lack of emotion. However, as we treated more and more patients, we realized the magnitude of their pride, character and dignity. They demonstrated extreme patience as they waited for hours, without food and water in the 90-degree heat to access our services. Their requests involved asking us to make their teeth go away, fill the black spot or make their teeth whiter.

At the end of our exhausting days we took the time for journaling and reflection on what we had accomplished, which didn’t feel like much! We were filled with wonder at how these people woke up every day with the attitude and energy to think about anything else besides basic survival. Their strength to take the time to hand scrub a shirt, softened first with real lemon, in a river miles away, and then pressed to perfection using a flat iron heated on the coals of an open fire. The mothers, with their children, wearing beautiful hats, hair carefully smoothed and braided, the gentlemen in clean khaki pants and collared shirts are an inspiration to all who came into contact.

We treated 554 patients in four days, ages ranging from five to 75-years. The entire work team group contributed to more than 1,200 extractions, 250-300 fillings with composite material and hundreds of cleanings and debridement with the help of our portable cavitrons. We provided toothbrush instruction for the children and fluoride treatments on an as-needed-basis.

We serviced the local police department, relieved the pain of the parish volunteers who cooked and cleaned for us each day. We treated AIDS patients, saw many pathologies and restored rampant decay on a 12-year-old boy who thought he needed all of his teeth extracted.

Most importantly, we mentored the only local dentist with basic cold soak measures, modern injection techniques, the impact of periodontal disease, and how to remove calculus with ultrasonics. His zest for knowledge confirmed the desperate need for education about oral hygiene and was sadly evident when the children were given a toothbrush they began to brush their hair with them.

The entire journey was an unforgettable experience and we feel blessed for the gifts that Haiti gave us. It is so true that every human being has an impact on another and any small act of giving does make the world a better place. Although our group gave its all to this village in one week, it is hard not to get caught up in the enormity of the need to keep giving.

The Haitian people demonstrated dignity, solidarity, spirit and perseverance: characteristics we can all strive for as we take for granted the lifestyles we are so fortunate to indulge in.

A heartfelt thank-you to our Canadian supporters, Dentsply, Patterson, Sinclair Dental, and the dozens of Transitions Group dental practices who contributed to our fundraising efforts.

Lisa Phelp, RDH, CMC, is president, Transitions Group. Angela Best, RDH, is Lab Product Manager, Dentsply.

Discus Dental Canada is proud to sponsor this new feature.

Print this page


Have your say:

Your email address will not be published.