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848 San Pablo Ave
Pinole, CA, 94564
United States

Michael Dang - Kenya 2019

I was inspired to volunteer as a dental assistant to gain a new perspective on dentistry and to serve the underserved children of Nepal. I am grateful for the opportunity to have explored their unique culture. This was all made possible by Cranberry USA and through their generous scholarship they provided me. 

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Student Profile

“By effectively educating these children on the importance of preventive dentistry … GDR volunteers create more than just patients with cleaner teeth. We create teachers and role models — leaders — who can spread their knowledge of oral hygiene to their own families and communities.”

Michael’s decision to pursue a career in dentistry came from a simple, yet powerful observation while visiting the dentist as a teenager. On one such visit, Michael witnessed his dentist calm the nerves of a patient. He realized in that moment how important dental care and the rapport between patient and doctor is.

Throughout his academic career, Michael has had the opportunity to observe a variety of different dental professionals. Through these experiences, he has seen proper dental care drastically improve the quality of life for many people. While volunteering with GDR in Kenya, his passion and love for dentistry were not only confirmed but reignited!

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My MISSION trip to Nepal 2018

What gives our life meaning and fulfillment? Is it caring for others, finding personal happiness, or perhaps giving others happiness? To me, it’s a combination of these virtues, and I find meaning and fulfillment in my life by serving others, particularly via global outreach. In the summer of 2019, I had the distinct opportunity to travel to Kenya with Global Dental Relief and provide impoverished children with free dental care and education. As a pre-dental student with one more year of college, this clinic trip empowered me with motivation and clinical experience that confirmed my decision to pursue a career as a dentist. This is a reflection of my experiences during this unforgettable clinic, in which I will emphasize the importance of preventative dental care and our impact on the children.

On this trip were twenty-three American and Canadian volunteers. They ranged from six to seventy years old and hailed from all walks of life: practicing dentists and hygienists to retired schoolteachers; a high school sophomore to even a loan processor. Despite our different backgrounds, we had one thing in common: a desire to serve and help these schoolchildren and orphans by bringing them much-needed dental care and education. Throughout the clinic, I had to learn on the spot how to perform what dental assistants trained to do for years, such as understanding tooth numbers and aspects; how to assist with amalgams, composites, sealants, and extractions; patient interactions; identifying and utilizing instruments; and how to coordinate with the dentist in the elegant dance of four-handed dentistry. As a rising senior on the pre-dental path, much was expected of me to learn quickly, retain information, and adapt to different situations and patients. I thoroughly enjoyed the challenging and engaging work, often forgetting to hydrate, snack, or even eat lunch because of the fun and intrigue! When I was not in the assistant’s chair, I diligently worked with my fellow volunteers to frantically sterilize instruments, apply fluoride varnishes, teach children how to properly brush, and educate them on what foods were best for maintaining good oral health.

In a country where there are approximately 600 dentists for a population of over 49 million, access to dental care is a rare opportunity for many Kenyan citizens. Due to the widespread lack of knowledge of and resources for proper preventative dental care, the oral health of these children were in poor shape. The majority had cavities in their posterior teeth (especially in the first molars), which had to be replaced with amalgam fillings. For some, it was safer to drink juice or Coke (which was heavily advertised) instead of water, a lifestyle reflected in the condition of the oral health. When asked if sweets and soft drinks were good or bad for their teeth, many children happily and innocently proclaimed the former, often not aware that such foods were the cause of their dental problems. Besides incessant cavities, conditions such as extensive plaque/calculus, gingivitis, and gum recession were observed, all due to poor maintenance of oral health and hygiene.

It was clear that the rampant lack of knowledge of preventative care had to be tackled upstream, not simply addressed and treated downstream. In other words, these children had to be taught why and how to take care of their oral health, instead of simply getting their teeth cleaned once a year and potentially receive fillings and extractions. This idea is absolutely central to preventative dentistry and is incorporated into the GDR treatment plan in the form of education stations. Following treatment, children were educated on topics such as how to properly brush and floss, what foods to eat, and other preventative measures so that they could be more aware of their oral health. GDR’s holistic method of treatment paired with fun, interactive, memorable education ensured that the children would understand and remember why and how they should take care of their oral health.

The widespread lack of dental experience was not only reflected in the children’s oral health, but their behavior as well. Not surprisingly, many were apprehensive and afraid of the noises, sensations, and procedures, having heard from their friends about the shop of horrors that awaited them. Some were outright hostile towards the dentists and hygienists, attacking them during simple examinations. What the dentists and I did and our effect on anxious children was incredible. After we introduced ourselves, we would present each instrument and explain its function, often touching it to the children’s fingernails so that they could feel that despite their sharp and torturous appearance, these instruments were safe and painless. We came up with fun names for different instruments and accessories: calling the suction a vacuum cleaner; amalgam fillings as tooth glue; and anesthetic as a potion that would make their teeth go to

sleep. Providing children with a mirror so they could watch what was being done in their mouths provoked great wonder and curiosity that quickly surmounted fear and uncertainty. Taking time to assure frightened children that we were there to help them in a painless, easy way resulted in their being more receptive of treatment. Some even expressed interest during procedures, asking me and the dentists why we were using certain instruments or doing certain things. Seating a patient and immediately performing treatment would have saved time, but for many children with no prior dental experience, this approach would have resulted in lasting psychological trauma that would not be conducive to further dental care. It is important for dentists and their teams to communicate with patients and offer transparency about their actions and armamentarium. As an aspiring dentist, I aim to enhance the dental experience of my patients by incorporating such transparency so that they, like the Kenyan children, can understand the reasons behind treatment tools and procedures designed and conducted to improve their oral health.

By the end of our clinic week, we had provided treatment for about 600 schoolchildren and orphans. For many, we empowered them with unprecedented knowledge about preventative dental care and the resources to take charge of their own oral health. And they were expressively grateful and appreciative, understanding that our treatment and education efforts were to provide them with better health and well-being. What good is it for them to wait until another GDR clinic returns next year to have clean teeth again? The journey to leading better oral health—and overall health—may have begun at the clinic, but it is the goal and vision of GDR and its volunteers that this journey continues at home via education about preventative dental care. At the end of the day, reducing anxiety and fear of dentistry is both on the patient and dentist: preventative care at home to combat conditions such as cavities, fillings, and extractions; instrumental and procedural transparency measures at the clinic for lesser uncertainty about and a greater appreciation of dental care.

But I think that our treatment and education efforts go beyond the children whom we had the privilege to help. Each patient—each child—is an individual, an individual who is part of a family, a family that is part of a community. By effectively educating these children of the importance of preventative dentistry and how to take care of their oral health, the volunteers of GDR will be creating more than just patients with cleaner teeth. We’ll be creating teachers and role models—leaders—who can spread their knowledge to their own families and communities. In the end, we’ll not only be creating healthier patients, but we’ll also be cultivating and empowering healthier communities. As the great Phil Collins said in Tarzan, “In learning you will teach, and in teaching you will learn.” This lyric is core to preventative dentistry, for the children whom we served and empowered have not only learned how to take care of their own oral health, but they will teach others and spread their knowledge as well. And as they teach, they too can learn from others. It’s exciting to realize that the impact of preventative dentistry can be far-reaching, touching more than just the lives of individual patients, but extending to entire communities. This is one of my biggest goals as a dentist: to effectively teach my patients preventative dentistry so that they can have better oral health, lead healthier lives, and ultimately impact others by teaching them how to do the same. Preventative dentistry can be jokingly viewed as a way to put dentists out of business, but there is some truth to this: the more aware and attentive patients are at maintaining their oral health and hygiene, the less they will have to worry about going to the dentist. The Kenyan children are lucky to have received dental care, and as privileged Americans, it’s important for us not to take for granted our oral health and the dental services around us. With privilege goes responsibility.

The clinical experience, impact, and unforgettable memories as a GDR volunteer are what I cannot wait to experience again. In the end, we all have purposes larger than ourselves, and I am confident to say that mine is serving others as a future dentist, incorporating the transformative power of community and global outreach into my career. It’s my lifelong goal to help the people of all the countries GDR operates in—Guatemala, Kenya, Nepal, and Cambodia— and continue to serve with GDR throughout my career as a dentist and beyond. That’s what will give my life meaning and fulfillment. I can’t wait for my next clinic!

By Michael Dang, June 2019