Mission to Peru is 'game-changer'
Going back to Peru for the third time felt like a homecoming for King City dentist Greg Williams, who had traveled there in 2005 and 2006 on dental missions.
But this time he traveled with Wide Open Humanitarian, the non-profit he co-founded in 2007 to serve indigent people in third-world countries, going on a dental mission every year since.
"I thought I would do it every three to five years, but it became a passion and turned into an obsession," Williams said.
Peru, located in South America, has a diverse habitat that includes the Andes Mountains, the upper Amazon River Basin, the Pacific coast and arid plains, and the 31-member team spent 10 days in the southernmost part of the country last spring.
"We flew into Cuzco and stayed in Puma two nights and stayed in Urubamba the rest of the time, working in different villages in the area," Williams said.
The group, which included eight or nine dentists, five dental students, four dental assistants, three hygienists and other support staff, set up shop wherever they could, and they spent two days in an orphanage, two days in a community health center and one day in a church.
"We worked with two local dentists and their staffs," Williams said. "They were great. But we ran into problems, like the two mixers we brought to mix the amalgam for fillings didn't work for a while. We always run into problems with our equipment and the electric current. People steal from the electrical grid, and the voltage can fluctuate.
"We passed by the dental clinic where the public health dentist worked and asked her if we could use her mixer. She went in and came out with a small glass mortar and pestle like dentists here used 50 years ago. There is mercury in the amalgam.
"She had 20,000 people in her territory," he added. "There is no way a single dentist can take care of that many people. Here a dentist might have 1,000 patients. She was really grateful that in a few days we could see more patients than she could in a year."
There are other major differences between dentistry in the U.S. and Peru, according to Williams.
"Here we put a crown on a tooth with a big crack," he said. "There they pull teeth they can't fill. Approximately 75 percent of the population lives with chronic dental pain. There was not a single person we ran across, whether it was a bus or taxi driver or whoever, who didn't say to us, 'Could you look at my tooth?'"
Access and affordability are the key reasons for Peruvians not getting adequate dental care, according to Williams.
"I love Peru and could go back again and again," he said. "There were long lines wherever we worked, and at the orphanage kids were brought in by the busload every 10 to 15 minutes."
As in other third-world countries, Williams saw gum disease more prevalent in older people and decay in the younger ones from sugared drinks. "The Western influence that includes making soda more popular than water is really damaging, and those who live in the higher Andes have a vitamin deficiency," said Williams, adding that the team worked at altitudes of 11,000 to 13,000 feet.
One day parents brought in a 2-year-old who had been running with a stick in his mouth and fell, opening up the roof of his mouth to the throat. "If we had brought sedation with us, we could have sutured it up, but we didn't have any," Williams said. "The body is built for survival and to be able to cure itself, so hopefully he was OK."
Although several members of the team spoke Spanish, the people the team saw spoke an Inca dialect so the team used interpreters for the approximately 1,200 patients they saw.
The two Peruvian dentists the team worked with were very grateful for their help, and one dentist gave a heartfelt speech at the end of their visit, according to Williams.
"She expressed her gratitude and said, 'I'm a dentist, and you're dentists, and we are artists and work with our head and heart and hands and use similar techniques,'" Williams said. "The dentists there looked at us with awe. We used headlamps, and the dentist asked, 'Where can I get one? I hold my cell phone for light.'
"We always bring extras and leave them with local dentists along with our left-over supplies and composites," he added. "We leave tons of stuff. I love working with dentists in other countries because they are meek and humble. Last year in Honduras we met a dentist who wanted to help, but there was no station for him, so he picked up trash."
Williams said he has stayed in touch with the dentist in Peru, noting, "She sends me updates on how she is using my equipment on Facebook. Having a headlamp is a game-changer."
Williams said he used to take some toys for the local kids when he went on missions, "but they don't really need toys," he said. "I'd rather fill my luggage space with toothbrushes. Kids are just as happy with a toothbrush as they are with a toy. We brought 3,000 toothbrushes on this trip."
Probably the most unique place the team members visited was a floating island made entirely of reeds in Lake Titikaka. They couldn't perform dentistry there because there was no electricity, so after the tour, the islanders came by boat to the mainland.
"It was a great trip," Williams said. "We took care of a lot of people. Peru is nostalgic for me, although several of our team got sick. We'll be back, I'm sure. It's on our rotation, although our next trip is to Tanzania.
"There are so many opportunities to give," he added. "I hope people will be inspired to do something. Every person has something they can contribute."
For more information, visit wideopenhumanitarian.org.