For most students, a spring break trip to Costa Rica sounds like the perfect exotic getaway. For the Emory American Student Dental Association (EASDA), the trip of a lifetime meant sweat, blood and tears — but mostly sweat.
To get hands-on dental experience while providing care to patients in need, a group of seven students went to Puntarenas, an impoverished town in Costa Rica, with Volunteer for Intercultural and Definitive Adventures (VIDA).
Despite humid weather in the upper 90s, College seniors Lisa Roseman, Andrew Baek, Chelsea Dinner, Laura Daly and Diana Pimentel and College juniors Joe O’Geen, Paul Choi and Riyaz Jiwani worked eight hours a day for three days in a small church that housed all of two dentists’ chairs.
Roseman, the EASDA fund-raising coordinator, said that the group went to Costa Rica to get the hands-on experience with patients that they are not permitted to do in the U.S.
“In Costa Rica, we actually pulled out teeth,” she said.
According to Roseman, helping and educating the poor community was equally as important as gaining personal experience.
She said that otherwise, some of the residents might not have been able to get the care they needed
O’Geen, EASDA vice president, wrote in an e-mail to the Wheel
that residents live in shacks, many of which still have dirt floors.
Roseman said that because maintaining oral hygiene prevents disease in the rest of the body, the group wanted to reinforce oral care from an early age by spending a day at a children’s school giving presentations, toothbrushes and toothpaste.
She said that every day, there was an audience of kids who was eager to learn and would go to the church directly after school each day.
O’Geen said he had a more difficult time with the young students.
“We get in there, and they’re three or four years old. It must have been a little too close to recess or something because they were pretty rambunctious,” O’Geen said. “We did apply fluoride to all the kids, though, so we were still productive.”
The children were also excited to have the opportunity to practice their English. But there were still communication barriers because everyone on the trip spoke varying degrees of Spanish, from not knowing a word to being relatively fluent.
Baek, who speaks no Spanish, said that getting along with the children was not very difficult for her.
“I was worried that there would be language barriers,” Baek admitted. “But kids are kids. I just ran around and played with them, and it was a lot of fun.”
While VIDA’s presence had somewhat familiarized the people of Costa Rica with typical dental procedures, Roseman said that she does not think the residents knew what a typical dental process in America would entail, from simple teeth cleaning to the more frightening teath pulling.
O’Geen added that he thought the patients, who ranged from ages four to 70, were “champs.”
Many of the children had “milk teeth,” which O’Geen said is caused by too much sugar consumption in the early ages. He added that in many cases, mothers would feed babies milk with sugar, or sometimes even Coca-Cola.
Roseman said that in addition to dental care, basic medical care was provided. Pimentel, an Emory medical student, helped Costa Rican doctors run checkups.
Roseman said they found diseases such as parasites, which patients could treat with medications from a small pharmacy set up nearby that provided both prescription and over-the-counter drugs.
EASDA worked long hours, but the trip was not all work and no play for the students. The group visited the rain forest and beach at the end of the week, went zip-lining through the canopy and even got to touch wildlife such as toucans.
Roseman will have graduated by this time next year, but she said that she is pushing for future Emory dental students to participate in opportunities like this one.
Baek said that he hopes EASDA will make the trip an annual and signature event of the club.
Baek added that this trip not only cemented his decision to continue to pursue dentistry, but also taught him more about himself.
“More than anything else, I learned a lot about myself,” Baek said.
Like Baek, O’Geen said that the trip made him certain that dentistry is absolutely right for him.
“If working in a clinic with ceiling fans circulating warm, humid air and everyone sweating bullets in their scrubs isn’t dedication, then I don’t know what is,” he wrote.
— Contact Alice Chen.