For more than five years, teams of doctors, hygienists, assistants, and technicians have traveled the world to provide free dental care to those in need as part of Aspen Dental’s Overseas Outreach Program.
In November 2022, the two of us were part of a team with Global Dental Relief that traveled to Akumal, Mexico, where we provided 501 cleanings, 524 fluoride treatments, and 63 extractions in just five days. Providing cleanings and treatments free of charge addressed patients’ immediate needs, and we also offered nearly 600 oral hygiene education lessons to help them improve and preserve their oral health long after we left.
As hygienists who are passionate about helping patients, providing care to people who don’t have access to dentistry was one of the most rewarding experiences of our entire dental careers. Here’s why.
Providing care is more than treating pain
The patients we saw, nearly half of whom were children, live in a community without easy access to doctors or dentists; only excruciating pain will push them to travel more than an hour to seek care. As a result, most of the patients had severe dental infections, even the young children. We cleaned their teeth and treated their pain, but educating them about oral care was just as important and was one of the biggest needs in the Akumal community.
Without ready access to healthy foods, floss, fluoridated water, and other oral care basics we take for granted in the US, the residents of Akumal are at a disadvantage. Teaching them about how sugar hastens tooth decay, the importance of fluoride, and proper hygiene techniques was incredibly rewarding. The patients we educated will hopefully take that information back to their families and neighborhoods and help spread healthy oral care habits for many years.
Helping those in need makes hygiene training worth it
As hygienists at Aspen Dental, we see patients in need every day, and we do our best to provide a caring, comfortable experience. We’ve worked for years to master the skills needed to connect and build trust with every person who sits in our chairs.
Traveling to Akumal allowed us to work at the very top of our skill sets and stretch beyond what we thought we were capable of. We saw an astonishing volume of patients with minimal equipment and technology at our disposal. There were times we weren’t even able to sit down while attending to patients, but every time we came up against an obstacle, we found a solution. Using our problem-solving skills to get patients the treatment they needed gave us the opportunity to grow as hygienists.
There was also the challenge of the language barrier, but we were still able to communicate and build trust. These were some of the bravest people we’ve ever seen; even amid fear, suboptimal conditions, and severe pain, they were able to connect with us on a deep level. They could have easily shut down and walked out, but the trust we built enabled us to provide the best possible care.
Connecting with patients, stretching our skills, and building trust with those in need make our education, training, and work completely worth it.
An organization that encourages service
Identifying a community’s needs is not enough—we also need to try to meet them. That’s exactly what Aspen Dental does, both in the US and overseas. By encouraging us to help those in need, Aspen has helped us grow as hygienists and as people.
Seeing firsthand the level of need in communities like Akumal reminded us that people aren’t metrics. It’s so easy to fall into the habit of thinking only about metrics, especially when we’re helping a business run smoothly. But if you see patients as numbers instead of human beings, you completely lose sight of what you’re doing and why it matters. Participating in acts of service, whether it’s something like Aspen’s Day of Service to provide free care to veterans, or an overseas outreach trip like this one, keeps everything in perspective.
This trip also helped us build camaraderie with hygienists in other Aspen Dental practices. Even though we were strangers before traveling to Akumal, we worked together as though we’d known each other forever. Now we know that no matter which Aspen Dental practice we go to, like-minded, compassionate people will be there. Having an employer that is willing to donate time and resources to help those in need all over the world gives our work more meaning.
Everyone should have a service opportunity
We firmly believe that every dental professional should participate in a service-focused mission, whether it’s an overseas trip or something close to home. The kind of care we provided in Akumal opened our eyes, expanded our knowledge, and helped us grow. We had to break down problems and find solutions, adapt to the situation, and connect with patients quickly. Nothing spurs professional growth quite like having very little to work with yet still finding a way to provide excellent care.
This trip helped us grow as both hygienists and as people. We were able to experience dentistry in an entirely new way, practice at the top of our skill sets, share our education and training, and gain a new perspective. We’re grateful to Aspen for not only offering but encouraging us to go on this trip. We’re already dreaming about our next overseas outreach opportunities.