Volunteerism: An Opportunity to Give Back


Dentists are highly trained professionals. A key element of our training, and one that enriches both our professional and personal lives, is the development of a keen sense of social responsibility which allows us to understand that there are people in our communities who, for whatever reason, cannot access or afford oral health care. This sense of social responsibility also helps us recognize that we have a moral and professional duty to help the less fortunate among us.

When we graduate from dental school, many of us are loaded with debt and responsibilities. We single-mindedly focus on building our practices, raising our families and achieving financial stability. Yet even as they build successful practices, some dental professionals seek out ways to help those in need. They don't necessarily have the time, but they have the heart to get involved. These individuals make up my personal pantheon of heroes; people who combine skill, achievement and dedication with empathy and generosity.

No matter how we conduct our lives, there is always opportunity for reflection and action. When we combine open-minded thinking with a willingness to encounter new and different experiences, we get the perfect setting for volunteerism.

My Personal Experience as a Volunteer

My life has been incredibly enriched by 4 wonderful children who, by virtue of being born in Canada, will have opportunities that children born in impoverished countries will never get. A child in Haiti or Guatemala may not have access to health care, clean water and education, basic rights that are taken for granted in our country. It is this realization that made me recognize how lucky my family and I are, and that motivated me to try to make a difference.

Dr. Jack Cottrell and his wife Michelle, who served as a dental assistant on an outreach mission to El Salvador.

I have been fortunate over the last several years to lead, under the auspices of FTC Canada, the oral health component of medical–dental missions to a number of countries in Central America and to Haiti. For the citizens of the communities we visited, many of which are ravaged by natural disasters or poverty, our way of life is an impossible dream forever out of reach.

My first mission experience in Guatemala changed my perspective on life and volunteerism forever. Our first excursion started at daybreak with a long, dusty bus ride through the volcanic mountains surrounding Guatemala City. The 3 dominant peaks—Fuego, Agua and Pacaya—loom over the city, smoldering giants that occasionally send fire and ash over the valley without warning. The old bus gears grind and the dust flies as we climb the hills of Palencia to our destination 6000 feet above sea level.

Our team of 21 health care professionals and support staff banded together with dentists and doctors from Guatemala to deliver medical and dental services to a number of communities. We see between 100 and 150 patients for dental treatment each day. Through our partnership with FTC Canada, we are able to distribute 6 weeks of food to each family along with vitamins, shoes, clothes, toys, eyeglasses and medicine. In Guatemala, primary school is funded by government only up to Grade 6; after that, school fees become prohibitive for many families. Eighty percent of families live on less than 2 dollars a day. Many of the young boys are out of school at age 10 or 11. Our interpreter paints a picture of a determined people "Everyone here must work hard to survive. If you don't work, you die." Over the course of our day, we encounter many stories of courage, perseverance and endurance. The locals are proud people who are confronted with the demands of a harsh existence. With no education or external support, they face a life of continued poverty, poor nutrition and unchecked infectious diseases.

As we trade stories with local dentists, it is obvious that dentistry in Guatemala has not kept pace with global advancements in prevention, technique and equipment. As much as we can, we share our preventive strategies, materials and equipment, and advise the local practitioners on modern sterilization techniques and protocols, all in an effort to help them cope with the overwhelming explosion of untreated dental disease in their population.

Dr. Cottrell administering dental treatment to a child at a clinic in Guatemala.

Our first patient, Maria, is an 18-year-old mother of two. Maria approaches the dental chair with white knuckles and knocking knees. Her hand is coaxed away from her mouth and she feebly shows her nervous smile. Two broken, carious central incisors mar her otherwise lovely Mayan features. We soothe her jitters with calm reassurance and when it is all over, she looks into a mirror and glows as she stares at her sparkling new smile. With tears in her eyes, she hugs us and thanks us profusely in Spanish. She walks out into the sunshine, head held high, a woman with revitalized self-esteem.

Behind her are dozens of children and adults with their dentitions ravaged by a sparse diet of corn tortilla chips and cola and a lack of oral hygiene. At times, the workload is overwhelming but the emotional rewards are life-changing.

Extractions and restorations are essential, but we also need to instruct patients on prevention if they are ever going to achieve sustainable levels of oral health. I cannot help but think of the proud and noble work of our dental colleagues early in this century in Canada, and how they turned the tide on rampant caries and periodontal disease through their dedication, vision and commitment to excellent oral health. Canadians now boast the best oral health care in the world.

Dental Professionals Do Make a Difference

Just as the pioneers of our profession led the changes years ago, volunteers can do the same now. Volunteers can apply their knowledge and skills with compassion, whether they treat the disadvantaged in their own backyard or abroad. Each individual act of volunteerism is part of a grander movement to change the world for the better. Our clinical skills need not be end points in themselves; they can be framed within the broader picture of bringing oral health to the global village.

There is an incredible need for oral health care throughout the world, and our profession offers extraordinary opportunities to serve. Through volunteerism dental professionals can—and do—make a difference.

Dr. Cottrell maintains a private practice in Port Perry, Ontario. He is a past president of CDA. Email: mjcottrell@powergate.ca