Turks, Philippines, Sint Maarten, Oh My! Expanding Dental Outreach Programs

by Michael Carabash, BA, LLB, JD, MBA, CDPM

Remember October 2021? Outbreaks. Masks. Variants. Vaccines. Tests. Lockdowns. Mass resignations. Shortages. Inflation. Politics. Anger. Blame.

And in that context, a group of Canadian dentists and support staff, mostly strangers, left home to provide free dental services to the impoverished locals of Turks & Caicos – a tiny Caribbean island known for its accessibility to Canada, welcoming people and beautiful beaches. It’s a country that we Canadians often joke (or maybe not?) about becoming a part of Canada.

DMC LLP started our trips in 2015, with Jamaica as our first destination. We have returned several times and then added Grenada to our travels. This was out first trip to Turks & Caicos. Volunteers included dental students, associate dentists, owner/operator dentists, selling dentists, retired dentists, accountants (like Atul Mehra), Henry Schein reps, bankers, and, of course, a team of dental lawyers at DMC.
From the beginning, we always talked about expanding our dental outreach program to Turks & Caicos. And, like a cursed blessing, we were finally afforded the opportunity to go. It just happened to be in the midst of a pandemic.

Getting there

Demand to volunteer was strong for our first trip there. That’s what you get when you lock down social beings for long swaths of time and deprive them of an appetite to travel. Also, having the all-inclusive 5-star Beaches resort as our host certainly helped sell the program.
With that said, let me briefly mention the mountain of paperwork involved in getting there – namely, notarized degrees, passports, licenses, criminal reference checks, three reference letters, applications, governmental authorizations and more. At times, it felt like we were criminal suspects being interrogated from afar vs. philanthropic professionals trying to give back to a foreign nation’s people.

That was somewhat to be expected because this was our first year going there. And it should only get better and be smoother going forward (yes, we’ve been invited back for this October). But once we arrived at the picturesque Beaches resort, unpacked and grabbed a drink by the bar, we collectively relaxed.

But that’s when the reality of our situation settled in: how the heck are we going to run a 20-op dental clinic out of a giant church in the middle of Turks & Caicos? Would the public show up? Would locals and government officials help or hinder? Would our equipment from Jamaica and St. Lucia and our generous sundries donation from Henry Schein make it? You know, the usual mess we find ourselves in when we run these programs.

One love, no drama

I don’t want to sugarcoat it – I don’t tolerate drama on our dental mission trips.

If you’re going to volunteer, you need to be cool. Those of us who spend countless months a year organizing these trips have enough on our plates to deal with. And for some of us dental lawyers who sell practices, running these trips isn’t even our day job.

But I’m not complaining about any of that.

I love volunteering and pretending to be an office manager or dental assistant at our monster clinics. I love hosting my group of volunteers to the absolute best time of their lives (they deserve it, right?). And I absolutely love serving impoverished locals, many of whom don’t have access to oral health care and have never seen a dentist or hygienist in their lifetime. It gives me and the other volunteers purpose and is part of our legacy.

What I don’t love is drama. I’m not equipped to tolerate it. Life is too short. Bring me “opportunities” and “solutions” and I’ll be your best friend. And as I tell my boys (Michael, aged 9 and Daniel, age 6) all the time: “Be cool. Be comfortable. Change your approach if you’re not getting what you want. And if you have a problem with someone, who should you be talking to (hint: it isn’t me)?” It’s the same thing I tell our volunteers.

With that said, there were some minor dramatic incidents throughout the week. Like a dentist wandering off for hours at a time while others sweat it out on their next patient/case; or a lack of assistants for some dentists; or a dentist being accused of stealing instruments to take back home (it didn’t happen); or a local selling tickets outside our clinic for locals to see one of our dentists (that local ran like the Dickens when the angry mob discovered his fraud!); or Ministry of Health officials hindering our line management (despite their best intentions, I’m sure); or dealing with that one inebriated local who was trying to help manage our patients outside (again: best intentions, poor execution).

But these limited incidents were all minor hiccups in the grand scheme of what we were able to accomplish as a team.

Success by the numbers:

Here’s what we were able to accomplish in just 10 working days (spread out among two large groups of volunteers) in Turks & Caicos for our inaugural year:

  • 3,668 people served (nearly 10 percent of the entire population)
  • 1,424 clinical patients
  • 2,244 children were involved in our oral health education program
  • 5,431 procedures provided (cleanings, fillings, extractions, sealants, fluoride, 31 dentures and 18 root canals)
  • USD$1,014,701 worth of dental services provided
  • 103 volunteers working 10 business days, including 48 dentists and hygienists.

We worked hard at our monster 20-op clinic. We executed and problem-solved. Registration. Temperature check. Blood pressure check. COVID-19 screening. Line management. Extracting or restoring teeth. Cleanings. Dentures. Root canals. Portable digital radiographs. Post-op instructions. Drug dispensing. We did it all and we did it well.

And because of our common mission and “one love, no drama” attitudes, the program ran without a hitch. We were all equal in our clinic. I saw dentists working without an assistant and never complaining. I saw dentists who had large practices back home either assisting other dentists or spending all day taking digital x-rays. I saw dentists push themselves to stay and work at the clinic to treat others, despite getting bad news back home about an elderly parent who had fallen and was in bad shape. I saw dentists at their finest: serving others.

Partying like it’s 2019

When the hard days’ work was over, we unwound. And let me tell you something about your fellow Canadian dentists and support staff – we knew how to have fun!

Dinnertime with teammates was a wonderful social experience. Talking about difficult cases (from earlier in the day). The bonding amongst strangers happened quickly into the program and ran deep. It’s truly something special to experience and witness, especially since we had all been deprived of social connection for far too long.

And just when we were too exhausted and full of good conversation, food and drink, our fellow teammates pressured us to freshen up and hit the dance floor for the next few hours. And boy oh boy do Canadians know how to dance.

The most surreal part was dancing at a nightclub during a pandemic. Masks were off on the dance floor, minimal social distancing, and (thankfully) no one got sick because of all the preventative measures we took to get there (vaccines, tests, PPE, etc.). In retrospect, we were blessed to be able to have a little taste of 2019 on a tiny Caribbean island while the rest of the worldwas putting out COVID-19 fires.

And let me say this for the record: I’ve been on many trips with many different groups of volunteers, but the Canadian volunteers are hands down the most fun (maybe I’m biased?). They know how to party, but they’re also respectful of others and appreciate why they’re there (i.e. no loud, obnoxious, drama-filled folks were among our group). And maybe that’s why we keep getting asked to come back?

Back home

Here’s the real special part about the Turks & Caicos trip. While it technically ended for the Turks & Caicos residents, the experience lingered for the Canadian volunteers. A few months after returning back to the realities of a Canadian COVID-19 winter, many of the dentists and support staff decided to meet up for dinner. Not only that, but most of the same dentists still stay in touch with each other to date; some starting teaching at the U of T dental school together; and some even meet up for walks and social events. Strangers found new friendships through the common experience of giving back. And it’s my hope that this will continue to bear life-lasting relationships filled with wonderful experiences and memories.

What’s in store for 2023 and beyond?

It’s an absolutely wonderful and life-altering experience to work with strangers to give back to other strangers in a foreign country. That said, we also have many dentist clients from the Philippines. So the idea came: we should look to expand the program to their home: the Philippines. And absolutely wonderful dentists like Drs. Maria Tuason, Christie Gamo, Roslyn Sim-Sabilano, Victoria Razon-Clemente, Jaqueline Geroche and others are very keen to do another mission trip in the near future in the Philippines. So stay tuned.

And just when I thought I had my hands full with selling practices and running dental outreach trips, another dental outreach program presented itself: Sint Maarten. You know, the beautiful island in the Caribbean that got hit by two hurricanes in 2017? I have fond memories with my family in Sint Maarten: the beaches, the restaurants, bars, clubs, the boating scene and, of course, the melting pot of wonderful people from all walks of life that inhabit that tiny island.

So I just returned from a reconnaissance trip to gauge Sint Maarten’s need (it’s very high) and ability to accommodate a mission trip there (I met with people down there who are figuring things out now). And if I get my way, I’ll be involved in organizing a dental outreach trip there in the next 12 to 24 months.

If you’re interested in volunteering in the Caribbean or the Philippines, feel free to drop me a line. It’s the best experience for dental students looking to practice new skills. Or a young dentist owner looking to take time off but not just sit on a beach and drink all day (it’s a work-cation after all!). And it’s the absolute best way for a selling dentist to transition and give back, after having received so much from dentistry throughout their career. You’ll put down the drill for the last time on a Friday afternoon and it’ll be a very bitter-sweet moment – surrounded by newfound friends in a foreign country, we will be there to celebrate your career transition in style!

About the Author

Michael Carabash, BA, LLB, JD, MBA, CDPM, is a founding partner of DMC LLP, Canada’s largest dental-only law firm that helps dentists prepare, market and sell practices in Ontario. Michael leads DMC’s annual dental mission trips (Grenada, Jamaica and Turks & Caicos). Michael can be reached at michael@dentistlawyers.ca or 647.680.9530.