“Cepillo! Cepillo!” Spanish for “Toothbrush!” those were the calls from school children in San Marcos, Honduras, when Sahar Abtahi AEGD 13 and Lindy Su DMD 13 visited with Cape Cares from March 1 to 8, 2013. Cape Cares is a Cape Cod-based organization that brings health and support professionals to Central America—with a focus on Honduras—to provide free health care.
The group’s website states: “Historically, most of the dental care provided was surgical—extracting badly decayed teeth. As the years have progressed, we have emphasized education and prevention and now we are able to provide fillings, dental cleanings, and fluoride treatments.”
“We went to a local elementary school to do dental public health one day and you could see the effects of the ongoing education,” Abtahi says. “They’re becoming more aware, even though there is really no access to health care.”
Education is helping the population make great strides, but the need is still huge.
Assistant Professor Kathy Held adds perspective to Abtahi’s statement: “In the US we say there is a disparity of care, or no dental care, but that’s because people can’t afford dental care. In Honduras, they are physically unable to access a dentist.”
“I didn’t expect the need for healthcare,” says Su. “I didn’t expect people to walk hours at the crack of dawn just to see us. At the end of the trip we felt bad letting people go not having been seen because we didn’t have the time.”
Abtahi paints a vivid picture of their surroundings.
“It’s not exactly easy living,” she says. “We had no electricity. We were set up outside, so we’d see gauze blowing off in the wind. Chickens would walk in front of us during extractions.”
Still, the two enjoyed both the dental experience and the natural simplicity of life there.
One of Abtahi’s favorite moments was when a 19-year-old woman came in not because she was in pain, but because she had seen a cavity on a back tooth and wanted a filling. “I was so excited that she wanted to save her back teeth that I did a posterior composite even though we were only doing anterior teeth,” Abtahi said. “We could tell our presence there was making a difference.”
Abtahi was unable to go on an international elective externship as a fourth-year dental student at GSDM, but she kept trying. She was overjoyed to find a spot this year, using her vacation time and marking the first time GSDM has placed a resident on an international elective externship.
“You’re hesitant to do this on your own so I wanted my first trip to be with the School,” she says. “I wanted to feel supported by the School so that I could use this as a steppingstone toward participating in missions in the future.”