By Amanda DelaCruz
I’m trained as a jeweller. I’ve always found the process of making art cathartic, and while it was critical in the development of the person I am today, I realized that something was missing.
What working in jewellery didn’t give me was the feeling that I was making a real difference in the lives of other people. It was far from providing what people need to live better lives in the way a set of new teeth can:
So I went back to school, this time in the field of dental technology. Many things were the same - the tools, the machines, the critical eye needed to make something. The difference was that there was purpose beyond aesthetics and luxury - we were making functional appliances that could change a person’s life.
Nowhere was this made more clear than when I participated in the charity dental clinic Nine Miles of Smiles, formed by Kim Daley, in Jamaica this past February. In Canada, in general, we are spoiled. I’ve never been exposed to such extremes of poverty and luxury in one place before. Biannual cleanings were normal for me. OHIP is normal to me. If I have any pains, I know a few doctors I can call.
It is unimaginable that in Jamaica some people have to wait a year in pain to be able to see a NMS dentist who can extract a tooth. Imagine eating soft foods for months because you can’t afford to have a denture made.
In Jamaica, missing a few teeth is a big deal. “With missing teeth they cannot get the better jobs in the resorts. [Last year] we made [a young man who was missing his two front teeth] a denture and when we came back he was working in a hotel and supporting his mother and sister with his new job,” says Al McOrmond, dental technician, denturist, and instructor at George Brown College who has been organizing this trip every year for George Brown dental students since 2010.
After being exposed to the tropical beauty that is Jamaica, it was sobering to see the dozens of people waiting for us at the clinic for our arrival each day. What we did was important. When a denture costs more than half of what some of these people are making in a year, it is not an option. To be able to provide dentures, cleanings, and extractions free of charge allowed these people to eat better, speak clearer and live without pain.
As dental technicians, our standard of practice does not allow us to work intraorally. We rarely see patients at all. In Jamaica we were exposed to the entire process, from screening patients to the final insertion of the denture. Vittoria Pietrantonio, one of the students this year, had a favourite patient – Cordette. We screened her on Monday and told her we’d have her denture by Friday. We saw her at the grocery store in Ocho Rios, and we got to know her better as a person while waiting in line. “She told us about her struggles without having teeth and how excited she was that we were making her a denture. She has a wedding to go to in a few months and she told us that now she can dance, laugh, and sing again with her friends and family.
Another young man was missing one of his front teeth. I made him a partial denture and my instructor made sure I was there for the insertion on Valentine’s Day. When he looked in the mirror he was overjoyed and gave me a huge hug. “Now I can go on a hot date tonight!” He couldn’t stop smiling all the way out the door.
In Canada, we are so blessed. Hygienists have only been in Jamaica for the past five years. Some of these patients have lived without teeth or in pain for years. Some have never been able to visit a dentist in their lives. Patients were ecstatic. “One woman brought her whole extended family in to meet the denturist student who inserted her case,” said another fellow student, Peter Bekesch. “Other people weren’t as enthusiastic…it left me confused as to why…[but] was later informed by our instructor that
They’ve felt self conscious for so long that the muscle memory for smiling has faded away. Those of us who have never struggled with missing teeth have no idea what it must be like.”
With a lot of improvisation, we were able to have a makeshift dental lab by a spice factory in Ocho Rios. Because of this, we couldn’t make full dentures on site. This meant Al had to screen patients for suitability. If they needed extractions we couldn’t give them dentures this year because their gums wouldn’t heal in time for us to work on their case. It was a heartbreaking process for me to even witness turning people away. The weight of their disappointment when they heard they had to wait another year for us to come back was only barely tolerable because of all the other patients we were able to help.
Dr. Jan Hanna was our dentist this year and he was so proud to be part of this experience. He explained that other dental charitable organizations are mainly focused on extractions and fillings, but he was unaware of any other like this one that had a focus on more long term change in a community by educating the youth on oral care, and focusing on appliances that will help these people in the years to come.
A class of 4-6 year olds came for fluoride treatment and oral education by our hygienists. I loved their antics. I could have watched them all day. Then I noticed a patient in the courtyard, patiently waiting, and I recognized him as one of the patients whose case was on my workbench. Nothing motivated me so much to get back into the lab because I knew he needed my skills, and if we didn’t help him, who would?
Would I participate in Nine Miles of Smiles again? In a heartbeat. And not because of the snorkeling in Montego Bay’s clear waters or our private villa by the ocean [those help though], but because of the beautiful and humble people I got to meet in Jamaica who needed the help only our organization could give them.
Glad to know what that truly means.