Local woman makes humanitarian trek to Peru
by: Vern Uyetake, Melissa Arce has worked as a dental assistant in Dr. Jeffrey Sessions’ Lake Oswego orthodontics office for nearly eight years. 

Left, Arce poses with the leader of a remote village tribe in Peru. Arce was part of a dental team that saw more than 300 patients over a 10-day period in Peru. During that time, the team extracted close to 300 teeth and completed 200 fillings.

Melissa Arce knows that, more often than not, getting kids to go to the dentist can be like pulling teeth.

But recently she encountered hundreds of children and adults who were lined up for hours waiting to be treated who even greeted her in the streets in celebration of her arrival.

Arce, a dental assistant in Dr. Jeffrey Sessions' Lake Oswego orthodontics office, traveled with Southern Cross Humanitarian Group to Peru to work on hundreds of patients who needed mild to severe dental work. After hearing about the trip from a patient, Arce asked Dr. Sessions if he would sponsor her and he agreed.

The team saw more than 300 patients and completed close to 300 extractions and 200 fillings.

Visiting a number of locations, primarily in the major cities of Lima and Cusco, Arce and the team were often greeted as heroes. Groups of children gathered to sing Peru's national anthem and would scatter flowers on the Americans' heads.

'I've nev-er seen anyone so happy to see the dentist. The welcome we received was incredible,' Arce said.

The conditions were hardly ideal for the team. Although Arce and the others were equipped with most of the tools they possess in the states, obviously there were no convenient dental chairs for patients.

As a result, the team improvised, using church pews and cots. Arce would occasionally find herself seated in a miniature elementary school chair holding a patient's head in her arms to stabilize it.

'The lighting was pretty bad so we would have three or four people shining lights into someone's mouth,' Arce said.

Seeing a dentist is an extremely rare occurrence for most Peruvians. Although there are dentists in the major cities, most residents are far too poor to pay for the care they need. Even though a root canal in Peru costs about the equivalent of $15, as opposed to about $1,200 in the United States, that is still a huge sum of money for the people in Peru.

Understandably, this can result in serious oral problems for many individuals.

'There were some people we saw where we would start working on a tooth and it would just break off,' Arce said.

This unfamiliarity also resulted in confusion for some patients. A few of the adults who Arce worked on were surprised by the numbness due to local anesthesia and even asked if their faces would feel that way permanently.

But Arce was extremely impressed with the attitudes and the friendliness of the people she met and treated. Many of the children insisted on helping the team carry some of its heavy equipment to and from its bus.

Arce was also surprised at the lack of fear that the Peruvians displayed. As a patient was being worked on, a large group of people would wait in the doorway, watching the procedure and could hardly wait for their turn.

'Some of the kids would cry after it was over but they cried in a different way. They would just shed a single tear and that was it,' Arce said.

The team did dental work on a number of orphans who were bused down to its location and Arce found that this was an emotional experience.

'That was hard because we would finish on a patient and there would be no one waiting to comfort them and they would just get back on the bus,' Arce said.

Although it stuck primarily to the cities, the team did venture into the jungle to do work on mem-bers of a nat-ive tribe, taking remote dirt roads through the Andes Mountains to reach its location.

'The scen-ery is gorgeous. Pic-tures don't do it justice,' Arce said.

Because of a lack of electricity, Arce and the team could only perform extractions since drills were rendered useless.

Here a team member became dehydrated and needed to be hooked up to an I.V., which caused a three-hour delay. That forced the team to hike back through the rain forest at night and then canoe back to its bus.

'It was pitch black and we could hear all of the sounds of the jungle and the birds around us and (on the river) you would look out and see these red dots and it was alligators,' Arce said.

During her 10-day stay in Peru, Arce also got to partake of some of the local cuisine, dining on guinea pig and armadillo.

But the biggest thing that she took away from her experience was how lucky people are in the United States.

'There were some extremely poor areas. Most of the water they drank you couldn't even see through and kids would wear shoes made out of old tires and nails. It just really made me appreciate everything we take for granted,' Arce said.

Sessions' office is located at 310 N. State St. The phone number is 503-636-5663.

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