Saturday, April 01, 2006

Mission to Manila - Initial Thoughts

After a seven day trip to the Philippines, I returned to San Francisco on Sunday afternoon. Our team of 33 students and faculty spent 2 days travelling, 4 days doing dental work in 90 degree weather, and 2 days on the beach at Boracay. In the course of 4 days we saw to close to 1200 patients.

I was a little overwhelmed at first. I saw things we will never see in our daily lives in the States. In fact, I saw things that I had never seen even at the Long Beach Children’s Clinic. People were coming in with teeth broken down to the roots and gum disease so severe that the only thing holding their teeth in place was a solid bridge of super-mineralized tartar coating the inner surfaces of their teeth. Eight-year old children came in with their first molars broken down so badly that the pulps had become scarred and engorged, poking out from the remnants of the enamel crowns like toadstools on the forest floor. Such a shame -- those molars come in at age six and are supposed to last you for the rest of your life.

But there’s only so much cringing you can indulge in before you turn on the switch and start running in doctor mode. Within 45 minutes of arriving at the work site in Malolos, I was performing 4 quadrants of scaling and root planing on a 35 year old man. He had severe calculus buildup and advanced gum disease. He was my first live patient (not counting the fellow students I had practiced on already).

Over the next four days, I had performed scalings and root planings, injections, fillings, and extractions, all under the supervision of the American and Filipino doctors. Most of the things I did I had learned already on mannequins or practiced on fellow students, so much of it came naturally. Then as quickly as we came, we were back in the airport, this time to take a local flight to Caticlan and a boat ride to Boracay. We had two days to rest our tired backs, and drink banana daquiris on the beach. Then it was back to the States, with little to show on the outside except sun-burnt skin and a few souvenirs.

I brought back the most important things in my head and heart. There are the practical things, of course: my “first patient jitters” have disappeared; I learned to administer local anesthesia; I’ve already extracted teeth, most of them molars.

Most importantly, I was able to make a few new friends as well. Throughout the trip, there was a rare camaraderie that is seldom maintained among strangers working closely together in an intense environment. For the thirty of us thrown together by mission and circumstance, seven days was enough to turn strangers into acquaintances, acquaintances into friends, and friends into even better ones.

And for that, I am glad.


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