A number of years ago an anonymous volunteer posted a sign on one of my mission trips which gets to the heart of volunteering. It stated: “If you came expecting to cure the sick, you will be surprised as the sick will help cure you”. I know from personal experience, it couldn’t be more true.
I recently returned from my 15th volunteer trip with the Somos Amigos Medical Missions (www.somosamigos.org) to Naranjito, a small village in the central highlands of the Dominican Republic about 20 miles from the Haiti border. Somos Amigos Medical Missions was born of a high school service program through which high school students served the poor by helping them construct schools, roads and water systems. It was on one of the water system projects, the second year of a two-year project in Naranjito, that we experimented with one physician and one dentist. We set up our “clinic” under a tree and in the community’s dilapidated chapel.
Initially our volunteers staffed our clinic once per year. Seven years ago we were able to increase the frequency to twice a year and since 2008, we now make three trips a year. Without a doubt, our volunteers have become the physicians and dentists for these simple but grateful people. Between our trips we continue to help some of our patients by funding additional care in the city; a hernia operation for baby Wilson last fall, eight year-old Elvin’s evaluation by a cardiologist, and a mammogram for Lourdes, mother of four young children.
Long ago we outgrew the space of the chapel, where we operated our first clinic. Several years ago we constructed our first dedicated clinic building. Within a year we outgrew that facility and constructed a second building. That space has now grown to three clinic buildings, a schoolhouse, a chapel and we renovated the old dilapidated chapel for a place for our patients to get out of the weather. When we started our clinic the community had no electricity or water. We now have a dedicated diesel generator to run our clinic and a water project has been completed. Our groups of volunteers grew from one physician and one dentist to groups of more than fifty.
Our physicians treat all who enter the clinic regardless of condition. Each patient receives a complete physical examination and with our newly expanded laboratory equipment, we are able to perform on-site blood and urine analysis. In our new woman’s health clinic, we are able to offer each woman a PAP smear while addressing the special health concerns of women in a private setting. To all of our patients, we are able to offer electrocardiograms, ultrasound evaluations, vision and even hearing screenings. Our clinic also maintains a well-stocked pharmacy and patients are given enough medications and vitamins to last until our next trip.
As the dental director for Somos Amigos I am particularly proud of our dental clinic. Most overseas volunteer dental clinics are restricted in the services they are able to provide by the adverse conditions of the area. Oftentimes extraction is the only treatment option. Although this is a needed service, it is not ideal. In the dental clinic for Somos Amigos, we strive to provide our patients with all the advancements modern dentistry has to offer. We have created a modern dental facility with eight dental units and attempt to create a state of dental health that can be sustained over a lifetime for our patients. Prevention, restorations, tooth replacement and even endodontic treatments are offered. Dental hygiene supplies are given to all who visit our clinic and the children are given hygiene instruction as well as fluoride in the school. We follow the same sterilization procedures we use in our offices at home to ensure the well being of our patients and clinic workers.
Over the past few years we have noticed a significant improvement in the overall dental health of our patients since the early missions. It is clear to us that the little we have been able to do has made a significant improvement in the overall dental health of our patients in El Naranjito. We continue to improve and expand upon what we are able to provide our friends in Naranjito and surrounding communities. People who have not smiled for years leave the dental clinic with a new smile and perspective on life.
On this past trip my son, a rising senior in high school who made his second trip to Naranjito, joined me. It was a father and son bonding experience I will remember for a lifetime. Pam Oginz, the hygienist from my office and Walt Richardson CDT from BayView Dental Lab who helped run our “Removable Clinic” also joined me. Walt processed almost fifty arches of removable appliances during the week. The smiles on his patients as they left the clinic said it all.