Restoring smiles in Jamaica
January 5, 2010
By Chantelle Lusebrink
With winter weather in Issaquah, you can’t get much better than escaping to an island paradise for a week.
That’s exactly what local dentist Dr. Robert Tanner and members of his team did Nov. 13-21.
The team flew to Jamaica with the 1,000 Smiles program, sponsored by Great Shape! Inc., to help thousands of people in need of dental services there. It was their third visit to the country.
“Jamaica is a wonderful tourist island paradise, but things are very different outside the gates of the all-inclusive resort,” Dr. Tanner wrote in an e-mail. “1000 Smiles is trying to empower Jamaican children and their families through health care and education.”
There is only one dentist for every 100,000 people in Jamaica, which is why the free services and clinics are so needed, according to Great Shape. The population of Jamaica in July 2009 was about 2.8 million, according to the World Fact Book sponsored by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.
Less than 1 percent of the adults in the country ever see a dentist, Tanner said. When they do go, many simply go for an extraction, he said.
Even more disturbing, he added, was on his first trip to the country, he saw 13- and 14-year-olds with molars that were already decayed and beyond repair.“That means that to me, a permanent tooth that could have lasted a lifetime was gone in less than six years,” he wrote.
The 1,000 Smiles program started in 2002 as a partnership between Great Shape, the Jamaican-owned Sandals Resorts and the Jamaican Ministry of health, according to the program’s Web site. It has since served roughly 15,000 Jamaicans each year with nearly 200 dental workers from the U.S and Canada who volunteer their time and money to bring dental care to Jamaicans who couldn’t otherwise afford it.
Tanner; two of his assistants, Erika Garrigues and Elena Don; his wife Diane; and his daughter Melissa helped set up a temporary clinic powered by generators to clean, fill and extract teeth.
“Diane and I believe service needs to be part of the fabric of our family. Seeing the needs of others is not an easy thing to teach our kids,” Tanner wrote. “We live in such a wonderful country and such a blessed area materially, that it is sometimes hard for kids to understand how much they have been blessed with.
“Taking my wife and children on these trips is to help them have a broader basis of comparison and a greater appreciation for our blessings. Service enriches our lives.”
With the 1,000 Smiles project, Tanner and his team have also been to Honduras and twice to rural Mexico.
“This program had been functioning in the same areas year after year, dispensing education and service,” he said. “The level of dentistry provided is excellent and the education team touches thousands of kids each year, helping to raise dental awareness and improve the oral health of the whole community.”
“I like to travel, so when this opportunity came up, I definitely wanted to go,” hygienist Garrigues, 28, said. “It’s rewarding knowing that you’re doing something for people that can’t help themselves in that situation.”
While there, Garrigues met Ryan, a 20-year-old man who came to help at the clinic each day without asking for services. When the team was finally able to look into his mouth, they discovered several rotting front teeth that were beyond repair, Tanner said.
They removed his four front teeth on Thursday and Ryan was back helping pack up the clinic on Friday.
“He was afraid to smile though,” Garrigues said. “He’s missing his four front teeth. So, I wanted to help him.”
For $56, she was able to pay for a partial, which gave him a denture-like piece of two teeth he could put in the front of his mouth.
“It would have cost him $5,000 in Jamaican,” she said. “Really for me, it was only $56, so I just don’t go out to eat one night. It’s not as much to me as it is to him down there.”
Ryan received his partial the week of Thanksgiving from a local dentist in Jamaica and called to thank Garrigues.
“Erika made the biggest impact in his life,” Tanner wrote. “Dentistry is a team activity. In this case, Erika acted on a feeling, reached out and made the finishing touches on a life for good.”
Tanner, his wife and daughter helped in the clinic and taught young Jamaican students at the public school how to maintain their teeth.
“If we can help a small community of kids believe they can be responsible for the health of their teeth, and that they can have nice teeth all their life, they take responsibility for other areas of their lives,” Tanner said. “Then, we depend on the ripple effect.”
Jamaica won’t be his last trip. In fact, he, his family and his employees are planning another trip at the end of March to a Bolivian orphanage, where they will help children in need.
“Diane and I enjoy doing the trips together,” Tanner said. “She is great with the patients and it is a fun bonding time for us as well as for me with my kids when they go. It is fun to work together on a project like this.”