Since 2003, Great Shape! has partnered with International SmilePower and the Jamaica Ministry of Health to deliver more than $500,000 in dental services and education to more than 3,000 Jamaicans each year. Volunteers travel from the United States to work in rural clinics where they provide services such as sealants, cleanings, fillings, and extractions.
And with just one public dentist for every 100,000 people in rural Jamaica, this care is badly needed. A volunteer for 10 years, Dr. Peter Auster will soon return to Jamaica as part of the group’s Sealants Project. He recently shared his experiences with Dentistry Today.
Q: Why is care such a challenge for people in Jamaica?
A: Jamaica sadly is a third-world country. Most of the people you speak to there don’t have running water. They don’t have electricity. They don’t have access to even getting to a dental office. And they can’t afford going in the first place.
Q: What kind of dental care do you provide?
A: I have a unique role there. I don’t do extractions. Most people who go to these kinds of missions do extractions. That’s more or less what they do. What I do, I have a cosmetic role. My role is to fix people’s smiles so that they could get jobs in tourism. Otherwise, there’s very little industry on the island.
Q: Clinically speaking, what kinds of challenges do these people have?
A: I see people who have decay in virtually every tooth in their mouth. Blacked out teeth where the hole starts in the front of the tooth and goes all the way to the back. We see 14-year-olds, 15-year-olds who just have bombed out teeth throughout their entire mouth. Unfortunately I can only work on two teeth, three teeth, four teeth. I can’t work on the rest of them. But I’m doing the best I can to help as much as I can.
Q: What kinds of products do you use in these procedures?
A: Mostly I use composites. The bulk of the composites that are used are provided by Tokuyama. These products work very, very well in very hot environments. We’re working in areas where there’s no air conditioning, and it’s extremely hot.
Q: What kind of impact does this care have on the lives of those who receive it?
A: I had a patient two years ago who was a masseuse. We fixed her front teeth, and she was so appreciative, she came back on the last day and decided to give a massage to every member of our staff. Every member of our crew. There have been patients who have just been incredibly changed. One of my fellow workers treated a patient who had been molested by someone in her family 11 years before. Her front tooth was broken at the time, so she had been walking around looking at this thing in her front tooth for the last 11 years. My friend created a new front tooth for her, and she could not stop weeping. We know that we completely changed her life. Those are the kinds of stories that we see every day. These people are learning to smile for the first time. They may have had holes in their front teeth for 20 years, 30 years, even 50 years.
Q: How does this care affect the children who receive it?
A: Initially, they’re very afraid of us, because they’ve never seen a dentist before. When they allow us to do the treatment, they look in mirrors and can’t believe they’re seeing the same person. It gets them aware of oral care. We have a sealant program at Great Shape! that is wonderful. And we will do anything we can to help people, young and old.
Q: How long is each mission?
A: It’s about 10 days altogether. The five days in the middle that we actually treat the patients, plus the days we have to set up the clinic, and we have to take down the clinic the last day. We get to bond at night with the people that we work with and on the last day, which is wonderful.
Q: How many people do you treat during the mission?
A: I treat less than most people. I spend an hour with each patient because I’m doing composites. So if it’s an eight hour day, I will usually see eight patients. Some of the other people who are doing extractions and fillings and other things will see up to four patients an hour, which is a tremendous amount of help.
Q: What are your fellow volunteers like?
A: A lot of the people I work with, I’ve worked with for the past 10 years. People who come to our mission trips keep coming back. We are always looking for more people to work with us. This is not religion-related. You don’t have to be any particular religion to participate. We’re just there to help these wonderful people who have an incredible sense of appreciation for what we do.
Q: Are you looking for any specific specialties or expertise?
A: We are always looking for oral surgeons. Oral surgeons would be very, very helpful. General dentists. Hygienists. Nurses would be very, very helpful because we also do diabetes testing and hypertension testing. You don’t really have to be in any profession to volunteer, though. My dental assistant down there is actually a bookkeeper at a prison. She’s been my dental assistant for the last five years. We have people who do all kinds of jobs, and everyone comes out changed in a very good way.
Q: Are you looking forward to the next mission?
A: I am so excited. There’s a Facebook and Instagram chain that starts the day we leave and fills up for two weeks or three weeks or four weeks before we go back.
For information about volunteering, visit greatshapeinc.org/volunteer/.