DMD Students Change Smiles, Change Lives in Guatemala

(l-r) Ben Irzyk and Greg Hein, both DMD 14, treat a patient in Guatemala
(l-r) Ben Irzyk and Greg Hein, both DMD 14, treat a patient in Guatemala

Comitancillo, Guatemala, is a place of weathered faces, of farmers who rise with the sun, and where ancient Mayan practices persist. The mountainous municipality of about 60,000 people is also remote to many modern amenities, including oral health care.

From October 16 to 28, 2013, Boston University Henry M. Goldman School of Dental Medicine (GSDM) students Ben Irzyk and Greg Hein, both DMD 14, joined the non-profit organization Dentistry for All in their mission to help bring good oral health closer to the people of the impoverished community of Comitancillo (Comi).

Led by Executive Director and GSDM alum Brad Krusky DMD 93, Dentistry for All (DFA) is an all-volunteer organization dedicated to providing dental education and preventative, surgical, and restorative care to underserved populations around the world, including the Philippines, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. During Irzyk and Hein’s stay in Comi, Dentistry for All saw its 20,000th patient. Irzyk observed that DFA is beginning to make an impact there, with patients returning for follow-up care and displaying better oral hygiene.

The greatest challenge faced by Irzyk, Hein, and the rest of the DFA team in Comi was limited time. Patients stood in line for hours waiting to be seen, most with more issues than could be attended to in a single visit. Only the most urgent needs could be addressed.

Irzyk and Hein were daunted on their first day in the clinic by the great amount of work with which they were tasked. Every night, however, the two planned how they would improve their productivity the next day and, in the end, exceeded their own expectations of their abilities. They each saw about 70 patients during their short time in Comi, performing extractions, composite and amalgam restorations, root canals, sealants, and prophylaxis.

The students immersed themselves in the native culture during their stay. They enjoyed traditional meals of tamales, rice and beans, and also less familiar fare. On market days, Irzyk enjoyed getting up early to see the pigs and cows being inspected, bought, and sold. They also visited a chuj, a traditional Mayan spa and sauna for cleansing the body, which was located at the house of the town’s leader.

On the closing day of their visit, the townspeople presented the group with a feast, featuring performances by local children:

Irzyk returned to Boston much more confident in his clinical capabilities. Director of Global Initiatives and Assistant Professor of General Dentistry Kathy Held said, “Global externships expand dental students’ cultural awareness and boost their clinical skills while also contributing to the health of underserved populations. Service learning is where it’s at.”

Said Irzyk, “As a group we were able to change smiles, and as DFA’s motto goes, ‘change smiles, change lives.’”

Irzyk continued, “It is an experience that every dental student, professor, private practitioner, or anyone related to the dental field should experience. It puts life into perspective in the States and reminds us exactly why becoming a health care professional is the career we chose.”

Photos are available on Facebook and Flickr.