A trip to the dentist. The following adjectives immediately come to mind for most people: painful, uncomfortable, anxiety-inducing, and the-last-thing-I-want-to-do-8AM-Monday-morning.
This weekend those associations have drastically changed for me in what I think will be a lasting way. At this moment I know a trip to the dentist can be empathetic, familial, and even profound. Now I know what you’re thinking, “Rachel, is it possible you’ve just spent too much time in sun? Is it perhaps too hot for you down there in Haiti to think clearly? Have you lost touch with your senses in the four months since your last dental appointment?”
Perhaps. But at least at in this moment, I concede publicly and officially that working with a group of dentists today I was completely and utterly moved by what I was a part of. That today I can think of nothing better than a trip to the dentist. That’s why I’m writing now–only a few hours after returning from the clinic–rather than giving myself time to reflect and gather my thoughts. I was so affected today, I wanted to utilize my momentum to write.
This morning we woke up at 6AM for what promised to be a chaotic day to say the least. A group of about 20 dentists from Dental Care for Children had arrived the night before and in three hours set up a fully-functional dental clinic in our medical center in the dark of night. They are part of an organization that sends groups of dental volunteers around the world 15 times a year to provide free dental care to communities like ours. The group of 20 we had at Espwa was one of those 15. Not only is the program competitive for dentists to volunteer with in general, but Haiti is their most difficult and trying destination. So of all the groups they send, this one is unique.
“These are the best of the best,” Dr. Tozzer, the founder, told me today. “They really are the A-Team.”
Between 9AM and 6PM today, with 6 operational dental chairs the group saw 156 children. They cleaned 156 mouths, conducted at least one root canal, pulled several teeth, and placed toothbrushes, toothpaste, and a toy into the hands of each child. That, in and of itself, was a feat. It was incredible to see them in action, a well-oiled machine. But at the end of the day what stuck with me wasn’t the efficiency of the day or the statistics, but the compassion.
One by one we walked the children into the dental rooms. Each room was equip with three reclining chairs, six dentists clad in red scrubs with extendable glasses and lights shining out from their noses, music playing, and tables fully stocked with the full array of scary, shiny, metal tools. Most kids entered timidly, quietly and found their seat, exiting just a few minutes later to collect their toy.
One little girl, Beth, entered much the same. Eyes wide, fixated on the nearest dentist, Mona, hands nervously groping at each other behind her back. Before long it became obvious she was more apprehensive than most. When it came time for her to sit in the chair her eyes filled with tears and she vigorously shook her head, pulling against the dentist trying to seat her there.
When I came into the room her tears threatened to break as she stared glassy eyed at her friend lying in the chair in her place.
“See, not so bad,” Mona told her, “It doesn’t hurt.”
I squatted down besides her and rubbed her back, repeating the same. “Pa fe mal. Facile. Ou brave. Ou cabab.”
She grabbed my hand and shook her head. As she continued to watch her breathing quickened, her grip strengthened and she struggled to stifle sobs. After exerting our best efforts to coax her to sit in the chair we gave up. Hand in hand, I walked her out of the clinic with a toy and she joined her friends waiting outside to return to the girls’ village.
I continued helping kids into the rooms, holding hands, repeating those words “Ou brave. Ou cabab.” (You’re brave. You can.) At the end of their cleaning I’d brush their teeth with fluoride, place a toothbrush and toothbrush in their hands, explain in Creole how to use it, and walk them out to the front.
As I escorted one of the girls out, I noticed Beth’s eyes locked on mine.
“How are you?” I asked. “Do you want to come in now?”
She slowly nodded her head.
“You can sit in the chair?” I asked.
She nodded again.
“Ok, vini,” I said taking her hand again and leading her back to the room she had left in tears earlier.
She watched quietly again as another friend lay in the chair having her teeth cleaned.
“Bring her here,” the dentist said. She smiled widely at her, tilting her head to the side, big glasses, light and all. “Tell her to watch what I do to this girl. It won’t hurt. It will be fast. No problems.” She smiled over the table at her, inviting her to look on.
Beth watched diligently, eyes still glassy, but with some resolve. Finally her friend was finished and she swung her own legs up onto the chair. I sat in the seat next to her, one hand on her stomach, the other holding her hand.
Mona looked down and smiled. “Ah! This is my favorite song!” she shouted swinging her hips side to side and jumping up and down. For the first time we saw Beth’s teeth in a beaming smile. She kept dancing, all dentistry aside, putting Beth at ease. I felt her grip loosen on my hand a little.
“Alright, let’s do this,” the dentist said, never seeming to fully stop dancing the entire cleaning.
Beth breathed deeply, her stomach slowly and deliberately rising and lowering under my hand. I rubbed my thumb against the back of her palm. She was willing herself to stay there.
In the midst of her cleaning Father Marc came in. We explained to him that she’d been convinced to try again after a disastrous first attempt.
“Well she doesn’t trust medical people,” he explained. “She had an enormous tumor on her side that she had removed when she was a very little girl. They didn’t get it all out the first time. She had to go back. She went back a second time for another massive surgery on her side. I don’t blame her.”
I squeezed her hand again. I have never in my life been as brave as she was, totally vulnerable in that chair.
Mona looked down at her again. “I could pull a couple of these teeth out here,” she said, pointing down to a double row of baby teeth and adult teeth. “But I won’t. I want her to trust this again.”
She sang a few words of the song again, rocking back and forth on her chair. I could see the corners of Beth’s lips lift.
“All done!” the dentist shouted, throwing in some final dance moves before pulling Beth into a bear hug. I don’t know if I’ve ever been so proud of someone or so impressed by a dentist. Beth turned back to me, wrapping her arms around my stomach and burying her head against my stomach.
“Ou brave,” I repeated. “Ou fini! Bon travay. Ou fini!” (You’re brave. You’re done! Good job. You’re done!)
The other girls had left by the time we got to the gate. I took her hand and we walked together back to the girls’ village: my mind on the bravest girl I know with a new spot in my heart for dentists.
*Note: Beth is a nickname I created for the sake of partial anonymity.