Tackling Tooth Decay South of the Border
BU students, profs offer free dental care in Mexico| From Commonwealth | By Robin Berghaus
Boston University dental students and professors provide free dental care and education for children in the fishing village of Teacapan, Mexico. Photos by Robin Berghaus
“Cierres la boca,” says Alexandra Antonescu, instructing a pediatric patient to close his mouth around a suction tube.
That’s one of the frequently used Spanish phrases that Antonescu (SDM’11) learned from a cheat-sheet taped to a wall in the St. Pierre dental clinic in Teacapan, Mexico, where in February a team of students and faculty from BU’s Henry M. Goldman School of Dental Medicine provided free dental exams, sealants, and fillings to children ages 3 to 17.
“Coming here was a culture shock,” says fourth-year dental student Antonescu, who works mainly with adults back in Boston. “I didn’t know much Spanish, and you need to talk them through procedures. It was hard, but toward the end of the week I got a lot more comfortable.”
Venezuela native Jennifer Soncini, an SDM clinical assistant professor, steps in for Antonescu when necessary. “Even if she uses a wrong word, the kids still understand,” says Soncini (SDM’02), who has practiced pediatric dentistry for more than 25 years. “Language is not a barrier. If you smile, kids know you’re happy.”
For this mission, SDM partnered with Project Stretch, a Natick, Mass.–based nonprofit that since 1988 has provided free care for more than 20,000 children worldwide. The group visits Teacapan, on Mexico’s west coast, for three weeks each spring.
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Project Stretch and SDM gave children at this clinic free exams and fillings.
“They don’t get dental care until we arrive,” says Kathleen Held, an SDM assistant professor and the school’s assistant director of extramural programs. “When children have abscesses, doctors place them on antibiotics. They learn to live in pain.”
Daily wages for the farmers and fishermen of the town run from $5 to $40 a day, and a single tooth extraction can cost as much as a week’s pay. Even if care were affordable, it’s rarely available: the closest real dental clinic is 25 miles away. Project Stretch volunteer Brenda Irvin says many families can’t afford even the bus fare, let alone the cost of dental care.
Project Stretch partners with Amigos de Teacapan, a group of Mexicans and Canadian and U.S. expatriates who host dental teams in their homes and run the clinic. They transport kids from schools, teach them how to brush and floss, and manage medical files.
“We need more young dentists excited about these missions,” says Frank Schiano (CAS’01, SDM’06,’07), an SDM clinical assistant professor. “It inspires them to get involved in community health abroad and back here in Boston.”