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Jungle Dentistry

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Jungle Dentistry

Volunteer Dentistry in the Peruvian Amazon

In the depths of winter my time spent providing dentistry in the Peruvian Amazon this summer seems very far away. But what an amazing experience it was!

Sheryl qualified as a dentist from Bart’s and the London in 2011 and has spent the past 2 years working in Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery departments across the country. Last summer she spent 4 months in South America and as a result is focused on incorporating travel and volunteer work into her dental career.

What is the Vine Trust?

Imagine the isolation of the small communities in the middle of the jungle, only accessible by river. The nearest health centres and hospitals anything up to a day's boat ride away. The Vine Trust is an international charity working in partnership with Peruvian charity Union Biblica to provide medical and dental care to these communities. Their medical ships, the Amazon Hope 1 and 2 are fully kitted out with medical consultation rooms, a pharmacy and a dental surgery with space for two dentists to work side by side, in addition to living quarters for staff. It's surprising how many people and supplies and how much equipment is squeezed into such limited space, but somehow it still floats!

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Our 8-woman medical and dental volunteer team from the UK and the USA worked alongside permanent Peruvian doctors, dentists, nurses, translators and, of course, El Capitan (the Captain), who took excellent care of us from our arrival in Iquitos to our leaving party on the top deck of the Amazon Hope 2.

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A typical day

The sun rises early in the Amazon and I generally woke in a tangled mess of mosquito netting and sleeping bag on my bunk bed in a shared cabin. It was humid; the cold showers were welcome and refreshing. On deck, the day always began with communal worship which was predominantly Christian in nature, but everyone was welcome to attend. We became adept at singing familiar hymns in unfamiliar Spanish and bible readings and sermons were in English as well as Spanish.

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After a freshly prepared breakfast it was time to work. Patients were triaged by nursing staff on the lower deck and anyone with dental problems was sent down to our dental surgery. We applied fluoride gel to the teeth of as many children as possible. If there was a lull, we hopped over to dry land with a translator and gave oral hygiene instruction in a community building or a church. We worked hard, but there was also time for play. While the ship moved between destinations we played board games, read and napped in hammocks, sang karaoke and even managed to watch some of the World Cup matches!

But I don't speak Spanish...

The language barrier is one of the biggest challenges to working in the Amazon. Taking a history, calming a patient mid-treatment, even asking a patient to wear safety glasses, all has to be translated into Spanish via a third party. This makes non-verbal communication vitally important, it may sound clichéd but a smile is universal. We learnt useful phrases in Spanish like "tell me if it hurts" and "please put on the safety glasses" but the rest of our treatment was facilitated by Marco our fantastic translator. Due to the Latin root of most medical terminology the names of dental procedures and instruments are similar in English and Spanish. It is possible to volunteer here without speaking a word of Spanish, but you'll get more out of the experience if you learn the basics.

Is this voluntourism?

'Voluntourism' has been getting bad press in the media recently. Numerous organisations exist which seem to benefit tourists' need for adventure more than the communities they claim to help. When choosing a volunteer opportunity, look for those that exist solely for the benefit of their patients. The volunteer service provided by The Vine Trust is specialised and addresses a specific need in the Amazonian community. Most importantly the patients are seen on a 3-6 monthly basis. This regular access to primary care is more sustainable than occasional emergency treatment. They serve around 100,000 people annually, and recently celebrated treatment of their 1 millionth patient! A huge milestone for everyone involved.

How can you get involved?

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The Vine Trust takes applications from registered healthcare professionals (doctors, dentists, nurses, midwives, optometrists, pharmacists) and also from translators who speak fluent Spanish. Their website has a wealth of information if you are considering volunteering with them, however if you have any additional questions, the friendly Edinburgh team will be able to help you. Although there were medical students on board, I think that this would be better suited to recently qualified dentists. We were there to provide a much needed service. Confidence, particularly when extracting teeth, is essential as accidentally fractured root tips can't easily be retrieved surgically and the patient will have a lengthy wait to be seen at the nearest hospital oral surgery department.

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However if you would prefer to help from the comfort of your dental surgery please consider a donation which can be used to buy toothbrushes (particularly for children) and stickers by the team in Peru. During my two week trip I noticed the children to whom we had given oral hygiene instruction being rewarded with sugary sweets. Although it is important that positive associations are made between the Amazonian communities and the staff of the Amazon Hope, as a dentist it was concerning to see our next generation of patients potentially developing caries due to our good intentions. Hopefully your donations will encourage even better dental health in these communities. Any assistance will be gratefully received.

 To dontate please click here



Sheryl Eve Wilmott



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