Dental students fill need, and cavities, on service trips to Puerto Rico

Originally published in the Journal Inquirer.

University of Connecticut dental students moved from sterile offices into historic churches in remote tropical towns twice in the last year, carrying with them cots, folding metal chairs, and portable generators to power their drills to fix the teeth of a population hit hard by Hurricane Maria.

Dr. Sarita Arteaga, clinical associate professor and associate dental school dean of students, knew it would be bad on Puerto Rico, having talked to her father who still lives on the island. But she said she was surprised at the dearth of medical providers rendering care.

Students and faculty from the UConn’s School of Dental Medicine visited the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico in May 2018 and in February to provide dental services.

“We didn’t know if there would be a lot of need, but unfortunately there was because a lot health care providers have left the island, including dental care providers,” said Arteaga. “Patients were left with appointments where there were no doctors, or they were having trouble finding places to go.”

Maria hit the island in September 2017, but recovery has been slow and the effects are still being felt, especially in remote communities.

Arteaga said the service trips to Puerto Rico, along with a third planned for this May, follow a long legacy at the university’s dental school of volunteer missions to Chile, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Honduras, and elsewhere.

One faculty member, Dr. Ronald Albert, has been on more than 20 service missions in his time at the school. Albert also works as a practicing dentist in Manchester.

The pilot trip to Puerto Rico last May was Arteaga’s first service trip with the UConn dental group.

“I heard firsthand from the people there — my father especially — about how much they lost and didn’t have,” she said.

The students and faculty always seek to travel to multiple communities within their service trip’s region. Arteaga said they wake up early to get all of their mobile equipment ready to reach patients in remote communities.

“We, the faculty, start by screening patients to triage them and find out what their needs are and then we direct them to the students … We’ll work until all the patients in line have been served,” she said. “That could be until 5 or 6:30. If we’re coming back the next day, we try to organize it because we can’t always count on having electricity at night.”

Students on another trip to the Dominican Republic once had to spend most of the first day just trying to get generators running. After their originally planned generators failed, local businesses and churches donated their own. This kind of strong positive reaction from the local community is common, Arteaga said.

“Everybody comes together because they realize that the services and the care is donated, and the volunteerism comes out in everyone,” she said.

Dental hygienists also join the trips to provide teeth cleanings. Some of the most common procedures the dentists and students provide are fillings and extractions.

“Unfortunately, it’s sometimes end-of-the-line care because they haven’t had the opportunity for care before then,” she said.

Arteaga said the trip is a cultural learning opportunity for students as well. Dental student Anjali Dinesh, who was on a service trip to Chile, said it was valuable to be working, learning, and bonding with dental students and patients from another culture.

“The volume of patients we treated allowed us to both hone our skills and meet a wide variety of incredibly friendly and welcoming people,” Dinesh said, adding that what she liked most about her trip was being able to live and work with the Chilean dental students and embrace their culture and language.

The Connecticut State Dental Association offers grant funding to help support the service missions, but Arteaga said much of the money comes from students holding fundraisers. They then typically cover any difference out of their own pockets, she added.

Somewhat more locally, the dental school is planning another service trip to remote rural areas of Maine in collaboration with the University of New England’s College of Dental Medicine for this June, Arteaga said.

Dentists from Connecticut and elsewhere will also be gathering for the 13th annual Mission of Mercy Free Dental Clinic at Windham Middle School this weekend. Doors open at 8 a.m. today and Sunday, and patients will be received on a first-come, first-served basis.

Dental student Mohaad Faraj of the class of 2020 wrote in a reflection on the trip to Puerto Rico that seeing the patients’ appreciation through charitable work reminded him why he wanted to be a dentist in the first place.

“It was eye-opening to see different dental needs for different social classes and how disparities influence the way patients are treated,” Faraj wrote. “In addition, it was a humbling experience to see how much more there is for me to learn.”