We thought adopting our new son from the country of Ethiopia in 2008 was going to be the thing that changed our family. Little did we realize, that was only the beginning. Three years and two dental mission trips later, my family’s life as well as hundreds of others will forever be changed.
The first EthiopiaSmile dental mission trip began as a group of friends came around the the idea using dentistry to love the people of Ethiopia. In a country of 80 million people with under 100 trained dentists in the entire country, dental needs are rampant to say the least. Dental prevention and basic oral hygiene are not a part of the national culture. Morbidity and even mortality, directly related to dental infection, is a common occurrence, especially among the millions living in extreme poverty.
This past September, eight dentists from various places across the U.S. were joined by 40 other non-dental volunteers and traveled to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Just under 1,000 patients were treated in spite of the fact that the majority of our supplies ended up being held up in customs the entire trip. Partnering with local ministries and churches, we were able to care for those most vulnerable. In light of the Biblical passage of James 1:27, we focused on caring for orphans, widows, the elderly and those children with obvious dental infection.
The majority of our treatment occurred in an incredibly impoverished part of Addis Ababa called Korah. Korah is a former leper colony. Today it is the home to over 100,000 living in severe poverty, many surviving by scavenging in the city dump.
A large open building with tin roof and walls was converted into a MASH-style dental clinic. After waiting sometimes for hours, the patients were screed and assessed for dental needs. Due to lack of predictable electricity and instruments, our services were limited to extractions. The patients were taken to an “anesthesia station” then to the next open “chair” for their extraction or extractions. Once the dental work was performed and had time to recover, the patient was given analgesics, oral hygiene instructions and antibiotics if indicated.
Keeping with the mission to love the people of Ethiopia as we felt Jesus would, we had a “buddy system” in place. Non-dental friends partner with a patient and walk them through the various stations as they receive treatment. Holding hands, rubbing their backs and stroking their hair broke down the language barrier and calmed their fears as most of them had never seen a dentist before.
Another unique aspect of our trip is the sterilization process that has been developed. A dear and talented friend reconstructed a large pressure cooker into a fully functional autoclave. WE used three, continually running, butane-heated autoclaves to keep sterile instruments available. This was especially important this year due to the significant amount of supplies held up in customs, not to mention the are we were serving in is rampant with HIV and other communicable diseases.
Multiple things impact my life on the EthiopiaSmile trips. God has a way of showing up there. He is seen in the faces of the patients we treat. The joy that radiates, in spite of their dire circumstances, is infectious. He is evident in the team working together, with a common purpose and goal. Seeing the many moving parts that need to all come together to pull off the operation is inspiring. It’s a beautiful thing for a dentist to step in, graciously care for patients in a less than ideal setting with limited resources to do what he or she knows how to do. It’s just as beautiful seeing an engineer, stay-at-home mom, salesman, grandmother or teenager work outside of their comfort zone as an assistant or patient buddy. All in the spirit of love, being the hands and feet of God to these dear people.
Traveling to Ethiopia has a way of changing you, putting the stresses and cares of this world in perspective, helping break out of the small world we live in to see a larger world full of needs, needs we have been blessed to be able to meet – at least in some small way. Our next trip to Ethiopia will be in June 2012.