I spent the past week in Cazale, helping my friends Lori and Licia with a dental team from Canada. I offered to translate for the team so that those amazing sisters could keep up with their daily work in the medical clinic and infant rescue. The team did dentistry for 4 days and it was an incredible experience for me.
I thought that I would be sitting at the check-in area or maybe sitting by the exam table, translating for the dentist while he and his assistants worked. They would speak, I would translate into Creole. End of story. Oh, was I ever wrong!
We had 3 beds set up for the clinic, 2 in one exam room and the third in another room. Herman, the dentist, would anesthetize Patient 1 and Patient 2, run to the other room, anesthetize Patient 3, run back to the first room, pull a tooth on Patient 1, pull a tooth on Patient 2, run to the second room, pull on Patient 3, back to the first room to freeze Patients 4 and 5...You get the picture. I have never seen a short term medical person work as hard and efficiently as Herman did!
We had nurses in each room to sterilize the equipment throughout the day and to hand Herman tools as he asked for them. I, however, had to stay beside Herman the entire time. The closer I stuck to him, the faster we could go and the more patients we could see. Those nurses were tired by the end of each day, but Herman and I were absolutely exhausted.
On the first day, it only took a few minutes before Herman was handing me equipment to hold and asking me to pass him things and assist with tougher cases where he needed an extra hand. I was completely unprepared for that; in fact, the first time he handed me a bloody forceps, I didn't even have gloves on.
By the end of our trip, though, I was a full-blown dental assistant. I could tell just from the type of tooth which needle Herman would want and with which instrument he would begin the extraction. It was a game of trying to predict his needs before he voiced them and when I did well at the game, we moved faster. I was only supposed to stay in Cazale for 2 days, but Herman cajoled and begged until I agreed to stay for the additional 2 days. He was almost as persistent as a Haitian!
Pulling teeth is very physically demanding. By midday, Herman would be wincing and stretching and telling us subtly that he was getting tired. But when we saw the mouths of the people that were coming, it was hard to stop working until we were ready to drop. They all had pain and some of them were obviously suffering greatly from their awful teeth. They had cavities, broken crowns, lots of abscesses, gum disease, extra teeth, virtually no teeth, loose teeth, black teeth. We saw it all this week.
Lori asked Herman to teach her the basics of pulling teeth because she occasionally sees patients with broken teeth or loose teeth from a fight or an accident. She was nervous, but over the course of the week, she pulled more than a dozen teeth.
On our last day, Zach, Lori's dad, drove to the dump on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince and brought back 15 kids and young people who live in the dump. We pulled teeth and filled cavities for them. They were scared but very grateful.
Herman wanted everyone to take part in the action so on our third day, he looked up from a patient's mouth and grinned wickedly at me, "You can pull this one!" And sure enough, I grabbed a forceps and with a little coaching, I did my first ever extraction. I pulled several more times that day and the next, and I can officially say that although I was successful, I do not want to become a dentist.
There was a 17 year old girl named Keverly staying in Cazale to homeschool Licia's boys, and she would come down and help out when she was free. Herman taught her how to do cleanings and she cleaned a few dozen mouths for us in the evenings when all the extractions were done and we were near collapse. And on the last day, she got to pull a tooth too.
In 4 days, we saw 242 patients, which averages out to approximately 6 patients every hour or 10 minutes per patient. There were some tough cases, such as a 20 year old boy who kept passing out, a 23 year old who made herself gag violently every time we started working on her, and lots of teeth that had oddly shaped roots and would not come out easily. We spent anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour and a half on those harder cases, but I guess the very easy pulls evened things out. There are so many more people who wanted to be seen but at least those 242 people will have less pain and hopefully better nutrition thanks to Herman and the crew.
I've been in Haiti for about 7 months and I have been a nurse, a vet, a pharmacist, a teacher, a soccer coach, a chauffeur, a car mechanic, an interpreter, and a dental assistant. And this, my friends, is one of the reasons I love Haiti!