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Vietnam: Smiles around the world

Aug. 1, 2006
Dee Krogstad, RDH, has taken her huge smile and sense of caring all over the world.
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Dee Krogstad, RDH, has taken her huge smile and sense of caring all over the world. She donates her time and skills to bring critical dental care to children in countries where dental care is out of reach.

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Dee’s volunteer inspiration began during a trip to Jamaica, where she saw long lines of people waiting to receive dental care on the Mercy Ship. She resolved to join this effort and carried out her dream, signing up for three volunteer tours aboard the Mercy Ship to Africa, which traveled to Sierra Leone and Benin.

When she isn’t traveling, Dee works at Glacier Lake Dental in Lakeville, Minn. She is a Minnesota native who loves having her family, which includes two grown children and a granddaughter, nearby.

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In 2003, Dee extended her volunteer work and joined the Himalayan Dental Relief Project (HDRP), a nonprofit organization committed to bringing dental care to children in need in Nepal, northern India, and Vietnam. HDRP works in partnership with its sister organization, Global Humanitarian Expeditions, which specializes in leading volunteers on dental service trips.

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For her first trip with HDRP, Dee and her fiancé, Jeff Edwards, joined 14 other volunteers for a weeklong dental camp in Katmandu, Nepal. The camp is based in a charity school for 500 Himalayan children who leave their remote villages to attend school. After an intense and productive camp, the group finished with a trek along the Everest route in the Himalayas.

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Dee returns to volunteer with HDRP every year. In 2004, she and Jeff joined a dental group to Vietnam. In 2005, they traveled to the remote area of Ladakh, situated 11,000 feet in the Indian Himalayas, to work on an HDRP project in partnership with the local Lions club. In this remote region, volunteers held school assemblies on toothbrushing, and treated 500 children with first-time care.

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This year, Dee is packing her bags to return to Nepal and reunite with the children she befriended during her first visit. “Working with children in these countries is the most vibrant experience of my life,” she said. “You do the work to help others, but in fact, you get so much more than you give. I love these amazing children with their wide-open smiles. To be immersed in these rich cultures, doing the work I love, is satisfying beyond measure.”

When asked, Dee is hard-pressed to choose her favorite country. But her experience in Vietnam is high on her list and is filled with memories of the gracious and friendly people, exotic culture and beautiful landscapes, as well as the terrific bicultural team of dental volunteers.

Vietnam is a country of 83 million children, 28 percent of whom are under the age of 14. With only 1,800 dentists to serve this population, Dee knows the care provided by the outreach camp is likely the only dental care the children receive.

Dee’s Vietnam trip, made during the cool rainy season, began when she and Jeff met their volunteer partners in Los Angeles and headed to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam. Kim Troggio, the director of Global Humanitarian Expeditions, met the group. Dee and Kim were excited to reunite and meet the rest of the volunteers as they headed out for a day’s tour of the city.

The Vietnam volunteers included five dentists, two hygienists, and six nonmedical volunteers. On the first day, the group adjusted to the sights and sounds of a new country. The day was filled with visits to marvelous temples, crowded market streets, and the never-ending stream of locals riding bicycles and motorbikes through the bustling streets. A lunch stop confirmed that the food in Vietnam is spectacular. The day ended with a flight to Danang in the middle of Vietnam - the site of the upcoming dental camp.

In Danang, HDRP operates dental camps in partnership with the East Meets West Foundation. East Meets West operates a permanent dental clinic with three Vietnamese dentists and a support staff. The clinic treats local children from schools and orphanages.

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In addition, East Meets West dental staff members travel to remote locations to hold five-day outreach camps for village children. Dee’s group joined the Vietnamese staff at their fall outreach camp in Hoa Lien, a village about a 30-minute drive from Danang. The clinic was set up in two rooms at the local school. The rooms were transformed into a densely packed dental clinic where more than 650 children were treated.

Each day volunteers arrived to find the courtyard abuzz with children. Parents lingered around the windows and the children excitedly compared notes about the tall, masked strangers and the dazzling array of dental machines and instruments. Teachers gave each child a dental chart, and Dr. Hoa efficiently screened each child to send them to the hygiene, restoration, or extraction areas for treatment.

Long lines quickly formed for each service. It was the challenging job of several nonmedical volunteers to keep the lines distinct and the children happy. Volunteers such as David Christopher, a Vietnam veteran from Pennsylvania who returned to see the country in a new light, drew pictures of teeth and handed out toothbrushes. With the help of teachers, he also discussed the role that sugar plays in making “holes” in the teeth.

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The buzz of children and their wide-open smiles motivated the dental team as they greeted each child. Despite the long days, Dee and the others relished their work.

“I am honored to work with these children who are absolutely gorgeous - they are nothing but smiles,” said Dee, flashing a broad smile of her own. “There is no other work I would rather do.”

Dee worked in a corner of the packed schoolroom, motioning for each patient to climb onto the small table that served as her dental chair. As she donned her headlamp and mask and grasped the shiny instruments, each child looked up, smiling but uncertain about the strange proceedings.

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Dee gently showed her patients the instruments and, as she gained their trust, told them stories and jokes throughout the procedure. Despite the language barrier, her soft banter seemed to relax each child. The other volunteers enjoyed watching Dee as she related tales to her small charges, who gazed up at her in wonder.

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Dee and Mary Anderson, a hygienist from Denver, Colo., were assisted by Barbara Shaffer, a nonmedical volunteer who is a psychologist in California. It was Barbara’s job to bring in new hygiene patients, chart the work, and transfer completed patients to the next line for treatment.

The clinic was a whirlwind of activity, but everyone was caught up in the enthusiasm of the effort. Barbara and the other volunteers soon learned that their most important task was to track the children, since they could easily get lost in the crowd. They tended to disappear to say hello to friends, or simply got confused about which line they should be in. Volunteers became pros at sorting children and reading charts to confirm treatment plans.

The dentists in the clinic worked in two rooms - one for restorative work and one for extractions. Dental volunteers used portable dental units, field-adapted cavitrons, and pressure-cooker sterilizers. While dentists and hygienists treated patients, local teachers and parents pitched in as translators, while volunteers gave individual instructions on oral health and hygiene.

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A highlight was the breaks volunteers took to interact with the children waiting outside. At one point Dee and David serenaded waiting children with American songs and impromptu toothbrushing skits that even the teachers enjoyed. The children reciprocated by singing songs from their culture.

The day wound down and parents appeared to pick up their children. Amid the goodbyes, the Vietnamese staff and volunteers stepped in to clean the instruments. Jeff, an airline mechanic, and Bill Anderson, a retired engineer, donned rubber gloves and worked hard to ferry used trays to the infection-control area. Cleanup standards were rigorous and the result was a well-scrubbed and restored clinic environment.

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Evenings were spent in Danang, where volunteers relaxed and rode bicycle rickshaws along the riverfront. They chose from the excellent Vietnamese restaurants and compared notes on the best stalls serving small, potent cups of Vietnamese coffee. Nights ended early as everyone retired to rest for the next demanding day.

The clinic lasted for five days. As her work continued, Dee was concerned about the high level of decay in the children. Volunteers emphasized toothbrush instruction. Brushing was clearly new to many of the patients. Some children even attempted to use the backside of the brush and had to be shown how to use the bristles. When she saw her first child without decay, Dee found the child’s father and was told that he taught his children to brush and forbids them to have candy. That was a definite bright spot in her day!

On the final clinic day, the team reminisced about the particular children who touched them - the child who bravely returned for three days of treatment, the young girl who shyly lingered long after her treatment was complete, and the naughty boys who peered into windows, fascinated by the proceedings. They were moved by the throngs of children who followed the departing team to say thank you, who smiled shyly and asked for autographs from their new friends.

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For the last evening, East Meets West staff joined the volunteers for a Vietnamese feast. Volunteers traded stories and shared a weary, but deep satisfaction. During the Hoa Lien outreach, they saw 659 children for 1,140 dental visits. Work included 214 cleanings, 473 fillings, and 700 extractions of mostly primary teeth. The estimated value of this work in U.S. dollars was $162,510.

After the clinic, most of the group joined Kim for a tour of Vietnamese highlights. The first two days were spent in Hoi An, a resort town on the South China Sea. Dee and Jeff particularly enjoyed the side trips they made on their own. They hired a local boater to take them to visit surrounding villages, and they also took motorcycle taxis on thrilling rides through winding back streets and along country roads, passing through vibrant, green rice paddies and herds of water buffalo.

Their next stop was the ancient capital city of Hue, which is filled with historic court pavilions and pagodas. During a misty, daylong river trip, the group explored the extensive and haunting royal tombs outside the city. They then returned to Saigon for more tours of that bustling city.

Dee and Jeff were exhilarated by the beauty of all they saw and were very impressed by the friendliness of the Vietnamese people. As the volunteers said farewell, they left deeply connected to the beautiful land and the children they met.

For anyone interested in volunteering under basic, yet rewarding conditions, Dee recommends working with Himalayan Dental Relief and Global Humanitarian Expeditions.

“Helping these wonderful children and experiencing another culture is an amazing experience,” she said. “Working alongside Vietnamese dental professionals makes the culture more understandable. They are excellent hosts who offer friendship and insight to this amazing place. HDRP and GHE make this work easy.”

The Himalayan Dental Relief Project accepts dentists, hygienists, and nonmedical volunteers for one-week dental camps or extended clinics. Trips are arranged through Global Humanitarian Expeditions. Both organizations are 501 (c)3 charitable organizations.

Laurie Mathews has volunteered with the Himalayan Dental Relief Project since 2001. She is the lead organizer of outreach dental camps in Nepal, India, and Vietnam.

How You Can Volunteer ...

The Himalayan Dental Relief Project (HDRP) brings free dental care to impoverished children and families in Nepal, northern India, Vietnam, and the newest Central American location. Global Humanitarian Expeditions (GHE) is a nonprofit volunteer service organization dedicated to sending volunteers on humanitarian projects around the world. To learn more, visit their Web sites at or

For information about volunteering for a dental project, contact Global Humanitarian Expeditions, Kim Troggio, [email protected], (303) 858-8857 or (800) 543-1171. For more information or to make a tax-deductible donation to provide direct care to children in need, contact Himalayan Dental Relief at Katy Shaw, 2091 Birch St., Denver, Co 80297 USA, (303) 393-7284, [email protected].