Living on a diet of mostly sugar cane, with no money to spare for toothbrushes, the children of Kobano Mission in Haiti suffer serious dental problems. In response, the Faith In Action Team (FIAT) at one parish arranged a special mission trip last spring in which four dentists and four dental assistants, accompanied by FIAT co-founder Don Killeen, journeyed to Haiti to serve hundreds of patients.
Kobano Mission is a "sister parish" for St. Joseph Church in Lincoln, Nebraska. The parish has held various drives to collect peanut butter, shoes, school supplies, etc. and various members of the parish have traveled to Haiti to help with the work.
Established by Louisiana native Father Glenn Meaux, S.O.L.T., the mission serves "the poorest of the poor." It’s situated in a rural area in the mountains about 20 miles from the centrally-located city of Hinche. There is no electricity, running water, paved roads or any sort of shops or stores.
Father Meaux relies heavily on the financial and practical support of U.S. parishes like St. Joseph Church to help. He provides food and clothing distribution, water stations that pipe clean water down from a mountain spring, a school, a housing program, solar-generated electricity and even a small economy that provides jobs and trade opportunities.
Getting medical and dental care to the community is always a challenge. Killeen visited the mission several times and worked with his son, pediatric dentist Dr. Martin Killeen to arrange this special dental mission.
It wasn’t difficult for Dr. Killeen to recruit volunteers. He started with his younger brother, Addison, who is currently studying dentistry and can work as a dental assistant. One of the professors of the University of Nebraska dental college, Dr. Jim Jenkins, also volunteered.
Two more dentists, Jeff Villafane and Shawn Whitney signed on, as did dental assistants Cody Christline, Aaron Larson and Danny Tylka.
None of them knew quite what to expect.
"We prepared for the worst," Dr. Killeen said.
Fortunately, they had been able to ship down a pair of dental chairs in advance. The chairs were donated by a dentist who was remodeling.
Various dental supply companies also donated supplies, such as fluoride treatments, Novocain, toothbrushes, and chemicals that could be used for "cold" sterilization of the instruments.
All of these went down to Haiti in a huge shipping container, paid for by banker Tom Johnson of Brainerd, Minn. Mr. Johnson has also adopted Kobano Mission as a special project, and has generously sponsored shipping numerous times over the years.
Dr. Killeen searched for dental instruments on eBay to pack into his suitcase. He was able to purchase enough equipment for the team at a reasonable cost.
When the dental team arrived, it was a quick set-up, and they were ready to go. A room with a tiled floor, formerly used as a chapel, but now a sewing room most of the time, held the two dental chairs and two wooden benches. The sewing machines were put to use as makeshift instrument tables, and each dental and dental assistant pair manned a station.
"Most of the people we treated had never seen a dentist," Dr. Killeen said, noting that it had been around 15 years since a dentist last visited the community.
They started with kids who were around 9-11 years of age. The state of the children’s teeth was sobering, and it’s all due to poverty.
"It’s just so severe," Dr. Killeen stressed. "It dawned on me when you see what people are eating down there. They’ll mix dirt into their food so they have more food to eat."
Haiti’s abundant sugar cane makes up a large part of the local diet. It wasn’t unusual for the dentists to encounter very painful teeth that were rotting right down to the gum line.
Since electricity in the mission is solar powered and not particularly reliable, the dental crew decided it would be a mistake to count on having enough power for drilling. It was more practical to focus on extracting infected teeth… as well as teeth so badly damaged by cavities, infection was imminent.
"At first, you would hesitate about taking out a permanent tooth, especially in front," Dr. Killeen acknowledged. "But they’d rather have an eyesore in the front than a facial infection or holes in their mouths."
The patients were grateful to just be out of pain from the severe cavities and infections.
"The kids were super tough. Didn’t complain a bit," Dr. Killeen related.
Each patient received a free toothbrush and some instruction about how to care for their teeth from now on. The dentists also taught the mission staff how to apply fluoride treatments, so that even without a dentist on hand, the mission can help improve dental health in the community.
Besides treating hundreds of school children, the dental team also assisted many adults. All told, they saw more than 400 patients and extracted somewhere around 820 teeth in the short week they were in Haiti.
The teams worked basically from sun up until sun down, appreciating the excellent organizing efforts of Father Meaux and his staff.
On the plane home, they were exhausted but invigorated by the whole experience.
"Everybody said, ‘Count me in for next year,’" Dr. Killeen said.
Printed with permission from the Southern Nebraska Register.