Spreading cheer around the globe, one smile at a time

November 15, 2011

By Tom Corrigan

With the help of a University of Washington dental student, Issaquah dentist Theresa Cheng works on a Panamanian patient. contributed

Local dentist joins Dental Brigade to Panama

Before she left Panama in August, Issaquah dentist Theresa Cheng had proof positive that medical trips to remote areas do some long-lasting good.

For the most part, Cheng said the 500 patients she saw in the rural Darien Province of Panama had extreme dental problems. There were two exceptions, two patients who apparently had learned the benefits of brushing and flossing during previous visits from visiting physicians.

“That was a surprise,” Cheng said, adding she was shocked at how much the two stood out from other patients.

Answering an emailed call for volunteers from a student at the University of Washington, Cheng traveled to Panama for a week in late summer. Part of the larger Global Brigades organization, the U.W. Dental Brigade organized her trip.

Global Brigades promotes health and sustained healthy practices worldwide, recruiting college students and health care professionals for trips to medically underserved, far-flung areas. Pre-dental student Austin Wessling founded the UW chapter and has led four trips, including the Panama excursion. He said each trip takes about a year of planning and he generally tries to recruit between 10 and 12 dental students along with two or three dentists.

Both Cheng and Wessling said their group spent some time in Panama City before heading out into the countryside and the difference was stark.

“Panama City has a Trump Tower,” Cheng said. “It’s very modern.”

Wessling said there were sharp contrasts between the wealthy and the poor even in Panama City, adding there were obvious American influences in certain areas.

There was, of course, no tower in the rural area about a three-hour drive outside the city, which is where Cheng and her group set up their temporary dental office. They brought two dental chairs with them, but for the most part patients sat in normal chairs while being treated. Those patients came, Cheng added, from hours away.

“The adults were very respectful,” she said. The children were, essentially, children.

“They had these big goofy smiles,” Cheng continued, adding her team was handing out stickers that one child put all over his face.

Cheng said with the help of the accompanying college students, the dentists on the trip saw patients in a sort of rapid-fire succession over a four-day period.

“We took a 20-minute lunch break and that was about it,” she said.

By the end of a day of work, the college students were encouraging others to keep going.

“They didn’t want to turn anybody away,” Cheng said.

During the treatment sessions, Wessling said he served largely as a sort of organizer. Each student did one job for a few hours and then rotated to something else. Wessling admitted the treatment seemed a bit chaotic at times because of the large numbers of patients being seen and waiting. Cheng noted dentists worked without an X-ray machine or much else in the way of electrical equipment, such as suction machines.

“That was kind of a tough hurdle for me,” Cheng said, adding she treated a lot of gum disease and pulled a lot of teeth. Filling cavities proved difficult without the usual dentist office electronics. But Cheng added the visiting dentists put a lot of emphasis on prevention.

“Just pulling teeth is not going to be helpful in the long run,” Cheng said. “The idea behind the program is not just a Band Aid.”

Cheng had nothing but compliments for Global Brigades, who she said had Panamanian natives, including a local dentist, helping out the group. Cheng said she has, in the past, helped with Tent City occupants and offered some reduced-fee care, mostly to veterans, in her Issaquah clinic. She did not rule out volunteering again with Global Brigades.

“I just think it’s a great program,” Cheng said.

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