A Look Back on My Dental Mission Trip to Chichicastenango, Guatemala

Hi everyone! My name is Noor Mahjoub, and I am a recent graduate of the University of Detroit Mercy School of Dentistry, Class of 2016.

As a new dentist, looking back at my very recent dental school career reminds me of a flurry of emotions; the excitement of holding the handpiece for the first time in simulation lab, the late night delirium before a pharmacology exam, the humble and gratifying experience of delivering my first denture, and, as my patient put it, “giving me my look back”! However, one of the most incredible experiences that I was able to undergo was a dental mission trip to Chichicastenango, Guatemala, the summer before my fourth year of school.

As a group of fifteen, twelve dental students, and three faculty members, we were quite a collection of characters! Some students were just finishing off their first year of dental school, biochemistry and physiology their only known language of communication. Others were getting ready to look for jobs following graduation.

Some students had wives, kids; a family to provide for. For some, it was their first mission trip. For others, like faculty members, it was a yearly tradition. We had a range of specialists, from hygiene to periodontics to, as we called Dr. Stone, the “king of extractions”. But within this diverse group of people, we all were identically squirming in our airplane seats ready to start pulling teeth!

Arriving in Guatemala City, we took a bus up the mountains to the quiet village of Chichicastenango, Guatemala. Three hours later, amidst tight turns, silent prayers, and Guillermo, our driver, weaving us around the edges of mountains, we finally arrived to our mission home. Seriously, this place was like a bit of heaven!

After a tour through the beautiful grounds, our hosts led us into a discussion about the local villagers. Villages of Guatemala don’t actually speak Spanish; their main form of communication is an ancient Mayan dialect called Quiche.

Their main methods of income included farming and handicrafts, with an average annual income of about $1,500. Leading fairly simple lives, family members shared one room with cots, a water well, and lived on a diet of the land. Many of the villagers had never seen a dentist. Carbonated beverage, pop, and sugary drinks cost less than water. Babies, slung at the backs of their mothers, could be seen drinking cola from their bottles. We were told we would be seeing oral conditions we had never seen before. After a little history, we were able to start setting up our makeshift clinic.

Our stay in Chichi included five days of clinic, from about 7 am to about 7 pm. Fourth year dental students triaged the line of patients waiting outside the makeshift clinic, aided by faculty members when needed.

And, did we learn! Many of the villagers had supernumeraries of premolars and anterior teeth. Some had visited the local dentist who fabricated gold-rimmed crowns, a sign of wealth in the village. Periodontal disease was an untreated and largely unknown ailment. Our largest population was children, with abscesses of primary teeth and early childhood caries.

It was extremely common to see 3-4 year olds with severely decayed D,E,F, and G. Dr. Haddow taught us that we could only do as much as we can, as extracting posterior teeth poses a risk of collapsed occlusion and future problems. Our Quiche translators educated parents and siblings on the importance of monitoring carious diet as well as following up with the local dentist in the future. Each patient was sent home with oral hygiene aids generously donated by Crest.

The children who underwent extractions were gifted with stuffed animals and hugs by the student dentist (mostly for not biting their fingers off!). Our group also performed hand and Cavitron aided-cleanings for every patient that walked in the clinic. By the end of the five days, our group had seen over four hundred patients! First year dental students were able to extract teeth, coached by a third or fourth year dental student. Faculty supervision allowed the makeshift clinic to run like a real dental office, with an oral surgery clinic set off for complicated extractions, a sterilization area, and a play area for the kids.

Our final day was a much-needed rest and relaxation extravaganza! Ziplining through the jungles of Guatemala, an afternoon in the largest outdoor market in Central America, and lunch on the lake by a dormant volcano were enjoyed by all. The trip finally ended with a night in Guatemala City, where we were able to recount our experiences during the trip.

Our group found that with one dental mission trip, students and faculty alike are more likely to be involved in future trips in the future. We also found that people are more likely to contribute at the level of their local community by becoming involved in an international aid trip.

Our mission trip was a collection of students looking to learn dentistry, yet we all learned so much more. We picked up words in their native language of Quiche. We learned how to make dulmadas, an authentic Guatemalan bread, by authentic Guatemalan cooks.

We played soccer with the natives, their skills putting Christian Ronaldo to shame. We relieved abscesses, took patients out of pain, and held crying children following an extraction. We became OBSESSED with Guatemalan coffee. We bonded with each other, with the villagers, and learned more about ourselves. I encourage all involved in healthcare to experience this firsthand. I can tell you, you will definitely never regret it!

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