The Smiles of Swaziland
Why do Loma Linda University dentistry students
By Doyle Nick
June 2012 found us in the small monarchy of Swaziland. We were invited to provide free dental care to the underserved public. Underserved dental patients are easy to find in Swaziland. With 33 official dentists and a population of more than 1.3 million, there is about one dentist for 40,000 people in the country. Now contrast that with roughly 2,000 people needed to support a single professional dental practice in the United States.
The group visits Kruger National Park.It was therefore no surprise to us that on the last day we saw patients—dear people who hoped we would see them but instead walked away in tears because we couldn’t—we realized that however long we were there, the situation would be the same. There were just too many people in need of our help.
Helping Their Smiles
We came from Loma Linda University’s School of Dentistry (LLUSD). Our team consisted of two licensed and qualified dentists, one psychologist, five dental students, and two dental hygiene students. We set up five mobile units, a mobile X-ray unit, and a sterilization center. In addition, we used benches and available chairs as treatment areas for teeth cleaning and extractions.
Our trip to Swaziland was made in response to a request for us to come help. We focused our time in the city of Manzini, as well as treating children at Emmanuel Orphanage and caring for members of the community around Lagwane Seventh-day Adventist School. We had hoped that we might be able to see 50 patients each day. However, when we arrived the first morning, there were close to 150 patients already waiting for us. Patient after patient streamed through the door, and there was always someone eagerly waiting for us even before we were ready to see them. They were young and old; strong and weak; happy and stressed.
The Beauty of Service Learning
Dental needs ranged from those that needed light cleaning to others whose mouths held only the remains of teeth—painful, infected, and unpleasant. These dear children of God touched our hearts with their need and their gratitude. We worked long days, struggling to do our best against the endless tide of unmet need.
Even though appointments were made for the number of people we could see each day, patients continued to line up each morning—some as early as 3:00—in hopes that we would be able to see them too.
We saw 400 patients, providing significant amounts of restorative dentistry in addition to addressing pain and infection by extracting teeth that could not be restored. Our philosophy—that we are treating a community and not just a collection of patients—drove the way in which we cared for each person who came to see us. When dentists come and do only wholesale extractions, they poorly prepare patients to be educated about and accept modern, conservative dentistry when it becomes available.
Above: Tiffany Beale, LLUSD 2013, with a patient
Below: Ken Ricks, LLUSD 2013, treats a patient in Manzini.
Each individual who left with restored molars, healthy attractive front teeth, and a clean mouth overall (which results in healthy gums, pretty smiles, and fresh breath) conveyed a message of hope for dental health, in contrast to the look of loss and defeat represented by bleeding gums and empty sockets where teeth once were. “One patient stands out for me,” says Robert Judd, LLUSD 2013. “All of her six anterior maxillary teeth had decayed nearly to the pulp. While I was speaking to her through a translator about the possibility of pulling those teeth, she began to tear up. I told her we would try our best to save her teeth, but if the decay involved the nerve of the tooth the prognosis was poor at best. Fortunately, I was able to restore the teeth with composite resin, and so instead of leaving with no teeth, she left with a nice smile and in broken English she told me, ‘Thank you.’ I know I changed her life dramatically, and it took only a little more than an hour. This is a moment I will never forget.”
Our student participants came from a number of different Christian backgrounds—Adventist, Catholic, Mormon, and nondenominational. Together we spent two wonderful Sabbaths worshipping in Swaziland Seventh-day Adventist churches, where we provided presentations on general, dental, and mental health. These presentations always provided us opportunities for more in-depth conversations about health as well. We especially enjoyed the warm African welcome, wonderful singing, and delicious potluck lunches. In addition, we cherished the African postchurch service tradition of everyone in attendance shaking hands with one another, with greeting lines snaking out into a great circle in front of the church as “Happy Sabbaths” rang out into the cool African winter.
It Meant So Much
Church leaders from the local conference, union, and division arranged our schedule and all additional support. Their kindness as well as the genuine gratitude from our patients meant so much to us.
There was an obvious need we tried to fill in Swaziland. And in spite of minor difficulties in trying to serve everyone, our experience was positive. The sincere gratitude we felt combined with the privilege of being in Africa with its wonderful natural and cultural heritage was a blessing. Indeed, a culture of service is prevalent at LLUSD, and we hope it continues in the professional lives of each of its graduates. Those of us on this trip were humbled to be able to be used by God to help His children, thrilled to visit Africa, and blessed by the good people that we met along the way. “My trip to Swaziland was one of the most valuable experiences of my life,” says Tiffany Beale, LLUSD 2013. “I feel incredibly privileged to have gone to such a beautiful country to minister to such gracious people. Each mission trip I take strengthens my desire to make mission work a part of my career for the rest of my life.”
This was an experience that changed us for the better and gave us precious memories that will live in our hearts for a lifetime.
Doyle Nick is associate director for dental affairs for the Health Ministries Department of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.