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Finding a purpose in Vietnam

July 1, 2012
A few years ago, while attending a dental convention, I came across a pamphlet describing volunteer opportunities abroad.
Hygienist embraces cultural adventures through Global Dental Relief


A few years ago, while attending a dental convention, I came across a pamphlet describing volunteer opportunities abroad. Global Dental Relief (GDR) was listed as one of the nonprofit organizations that traveled to different countries to deliver free dental care to children.

When reading the pamphlet, I quickly realized that this would be an amazing opportunity for me to grow as a clinician while fulfilling my dream of traveling abroad. After GDR answered my many questions regarding such things as food, lodging, and equipment (all supplies are provided), I signed up for my first trip to Guatemala.

The experience was phenomenal -- culturally educational as well as humbling in many ways. All of the volunteers, including myself, came with an open mind and a desire to improve each child's life. The friendships that were made and the memories shared changed me forever. I knew that this would be the first of many trips with Global Dental Relief.

Vietnam was my next adventure and I brought two friends from hygiene school to share it with me. Our landing in Ho Chi Minh City brought forth many different feelings. We were excited to see the country and looked forward to learning about the Vietnamese culture. We were also eager to see the setting where we would be caring for the children.

Cheerful conversation filled the dining room on the first morning. Returning volunteers were happily reuniting, and others were meeting for the first time. Spirits were high, and upon arrival at the school we were greeted by an enthusiastic group of children. At the opening ceremony, our team was welcomed and we were introduced to the DOVE Foundation and East Meets West (EMW) organizations, which partner with GDR to treat local children from schools and orphanages. Together, we would care for these children and provide them with the best dentistry we could offer.

Every day started with wonderful, energetic greetings from the children. Each child was seen by one of the Vietnamese dentists from EMW who would diagnose and send them to the appropriate treatment area -- whether it was for oral hygiene education, prophylaxis and sealants, fillings, or extractions.

The author poses with a Vietnamese child during a break.

The children started out a bit anxious. But after we took the time to make them feel comfortable and secure, they became the most courageous patients.

My favorite moment came the last day of clinic. The principal of the school and the head of the EMW team gave a heartfelt speech to all the volunteers to thank us for our hard work. Their words made me realize that by volunteering our time and skills to help these children, we had not only improved their quality of life, but we had touched the lives of an entire community.

As in Guatemala, the children in Vietnam touched me in a way that is difficult to put into words. A frightened child, crying and reluctant at the beginning, who leaves with a big grin, gives a high five, and even poses for pictures makes it all worthwhile. This is just one of the many genuine, touching experiences that I encountered in Vietnam. These moments not only strengthen my passion for helping others, but remind me of why I became a dental hygienist.

Working compassionately with individuals and diverse communities is a key part of the dental profession. The desire to help others improve their quality of life is what drew me to the dental field and continues to be a driving force in my life. GDR embraces these values and provides a unique opportunity to travel and learn about different cultures.

Volunteering with GDR has given me some of the best and most memorable experiences of my life. The camaraderie that develops among the team members from all over the world is really quite special. But best, of course, are the children and being able to make a difference in their lives. This is what brings me back, again and again.

For more information on volunteer dental opportunities, contact Global Dental Relief at www.globaldentalrelief.org, (800) 543-1171, or send an email to [email protected]. RDH

LIESEL MELCHOR, RDH, practices in New York City. This article describes her third volunteer dental trip with Global Dental. She has also volunteered her time with other organizations working in Central America.

The Gift of Giving in Vietnam


Imagine a family of eight to 10 having only one toothbrush to share between them for long periods of time. Imagine primary decay causing so much pain that the only option is an extraction for relief. Imagine having minimal or no teeth by the age of 10 due to the lack of dental care. At this point, what is the quality of life?

Trieu Dong School in Da Nang, Vietnam, which is located 8,874 miles from New York City, is in a small village of underprivileged children where medical and dental resources are obsolete. Da Nang is one of many cities in need of dental care.

In September 2011, volunteers traveled to Da Nang to provide dental care for those in need. A big part of the successful trip was due to the whole-hearted work of 21 international volunteers -- dentists, dental hygienists, dental assistants and nondental volunteers from different parts of the United States and Canada. These volunteers worked with 13 local volunteers to complete the outreach mission. The outreach provided 604 children with prophylaxes, sealants, fluoride treatments, fillings, and extractions over five days.

The clinical settings consisted of two classrooms converted into operatories. Generators provided the electricity to run equipment needed for dental procedures. Dental chairs consisted of desktops, and our portable lights resembled something we would use here to read a book at night. Supplies such as fluoride and anesthetic were hand carried from across the globe to help these disadvantaged children.

The children greeted us every morning with smiles and waves as they lined up at 8 a.m. to receive oral hygiene instruction, which consisted of brushing and flossing. Each received a care package, including a toothbrush, floss, and toothpaste. The next step was diagnosis, where the children lined up for the treatment needed. Only a few radiographs were taken due to the cost and limited materials. It was an eight-hour day, but through this process we were able to provide much-needed care to as many patients as possible.

We can only imagine how each child felt. Put yourself in their shoes; they're between the ages of 5 and 11 years old. The children know that they're receiving optimal care. Although excited, they are apprehensive of the unknown and also do not fully understand what is being said because of the language barrier.

Clinical findings consisted of tenacious supra- and subgingival calculus, visible decay, exposed pulp, fractured teeth, residual root tips, and staining. Unfortunately, in Vietnam the tap water is undrinkable and cannot be fluoridated.

As dental hygienists who experienced this firsthand and lived in poverty for one week, we found it to be amazing but humbling. Vietnam is just one of many countries in desperate need of dental care, but where funding is limited and volunteers are few. We hope more volunteers will come forward to assist in providing optimal care for children in need.

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