A few years ago Gaye and I had the opportunity to participate in a humanitarian service mission to Peru. When I first learned about the activity I was attracted by a planned side trip. The group would do our thing in a small village near the Amazon in Peru for 5 days. Then we would go to Machu Picchu and Cuzco. I reasoned that seeing the Inca archeological sites in the Peruvian Andes was on my bucket list and that this was probably the best opportunity I would ever have to go there. So I signed up.
Machu Picchu is an amazing place. Anything that anybody has ever said about it is understated. The ruins at Sacsayhuamán (also known as Sacsahuaman) in Cuzco simply boggle the mind. However, 6 years later, I remember the feelings and the people associated with the dental service with greater clarity and fondness than the trip to the mountains. I will never forget the first dental patient I had there. After finding the tooth that was causing her major grief, I numbed it and removed the offending member. She stood up and turned around and gave me a big hug. I was not expecting that and it brought tears to my eyes. I have never been paid as well and as freely.
Since then I have been to Guatemala four more times, twice doing routine dental procedures and twice as part of a surgical team, all of them with Hirsche Smiles Foundation. Each trip has been to a different location. Each has profoundly affected my life.
On the most recent such adventure I was basically in the operating rooms every day. That is not where I have spent my career, so it was an adventure in itself. Some of the nurses
love to yell at people who act like they don’t know what they are doing there, and I fit that description. “Don’t touch that!” was the most frequent admonition. As one of the surgeons told me, "We practice sterile technique here, but with an asterisk. The mouth is probably the most “unclean” place on the body." Nevertheless, it was immensely gratifying to observe the artistry and professionalism of the two gifted surgeons who were the focal point of what went on in those OR settings. One was a cranio-facial surgeon. The other was a plastic surgeon. Both were amazing.
The primary object of the mission was to help Guatemalan kids with cleft lips and palates. The other major goal was to correct scars and other defects that affected the kids as they grew up in their own social atmospheres. Kids who look different are often rejected by their peers, although rarely by their mothers. Sometimes horrible scars from nasty burns made their lives miserable by altering their ability to function in their society, even in doing simple things like eating and drinking.
|17 years old, she had an infection at age 4 and lost her eye.|
Some had been born without external ears. The surgical results were often amazing.
|External ear made from rib cartilage|
My role was to remove teeth that were either in the surgical sight or that were badly decayed and causing grief for the kids. One particular case has stayed with me more than the others. The girl was about 11 and had had cleft repair surgery when she was much younger.
The result was pretty good but there were some things that needed revision, mainly so she could take water into her mouth and it would not come out her nose. When the marvelous anesthesiologist (there were two of them) got her to sleep it became apparent that there was some very active infection going on in her head. With a little probing and hunting a huge, dirty foreign body was found and removed from her nose. That thing had been there for years, and it was creating a near-septic condition. The fistulas were closed and she went to recovery, where one of the talented recovery nurses, who had been a missionary in Paraguay and spoke fluent Spanish, determined that the young lady was suffering from some badly decayed lower teeth.
I am quite comfortable doing difficult extractions when I am in my office with my instruments and assistants. Things are more challenging in field situations, but I have learned to improvise. My very bright anesthesiologist brother
mixed up some anesthetic for me, I found a hypodermic syringe that would work, we used the feeble suction in the recovery room, my wonderful daughter assisted me, and we were able to remove 5 badly abscessed roots from her mandible.
|Daughter, Dad, Son-in-law|
After that, she went to the floor where my talented pediatrician son-in-law put the patient on IV antibiotics for two days. She went home later that week feeling a whole bunch better than she had felt in years. It is quite likely that we saved her life. The infection would have spread through her system and overwhelmed her resistance.
I told my daughter that for me, if I accomplished nothing else on the whole mission, that was worth the trip. It graphically showed me that God loves his children, and he wants to bless all of us. The mission treated 62 kids with more than 100 procedures, worth many thousands of dollars. Those individuals and their family and friends have been blessed immensely through the hands and hearts of everybody who was involved in the service. Their lives have been changed forever. However, I think that the lives of each of us who served the humble people of Guatemala have been even more profoundly impacted. Miracles happened every day as kids from all over Guatemala came in for procedures. Sometimes the miracle was just in getting there. I learned, again, that the Lord loves all of God’s children. The greatest manifestation of that love is the enabling and redeeming power of the Atonement of Jesus Christ. He lived and died and lives now so that we might also live. I also learned again that God most often blesses his children through us, their brothers and sisters. It really is a family affair.