"This trip will hold a special place in my heart as one of those chance-of-a-lifetime experiences," says Liz Lake, CDT, a staff member at Midwestern University (MWU) College of Dental Medicine, Glendale, AZ, who recently returned from a dental mission on the South Pacific island of Tonga.
The Kingdom of Tonga is made up of more than 100 islands, many without electricity or running water, and a large portion of the population is farmers who don't have the money for regular dental care. "The need is great, and I would estimate that 80% of the people I saw on the island are missing at least one anterior tooth," says Lake, noting that one of the island's biggest exports—sugarcane—is often given to children as a treat. "Many of the patients were youngsters with teeth that are almost completely broken down with decay, which is likely the direct result of sucking on sugarcane. Generally, the only treatment is to extract the teeth."
In addition to Lake, four dentists and 14 third-year dental students from MWU participated in the mission which was sponsored by the campus chapter of the Latter-Day Saints (LDS) Student Dental Association. They teamed with an LDS Association dentist, who is serving a year-long mission on the island, to set up a clinic in the health center of a local high school. It consisted of seven dental chairs, a small waiting room and a small exam room converted to a removable lab equipped with a dental lathe, vibrator, Hanau torch and a rice-cooker that served as a pressure pot/curing unit. Lake brought her own supplies, including wax, acrylic, articulators, denture teeth and instruments.
People from all over Tonga were lined up at the door each morning as the volunteers arrived. The team worked at a fast pace and in five days treated 194 patients, including extractions, fillings, cleanings, root canals and removable prostheses. Lake fabricated over 30 flippers, partials and complete dentures, as well as relines and repairs. The group also brought 10 full denture cases back with them for fabrication, then shipped them back to the dentist on the island.
"I've had my share of busy days during my 30-plus years as a dental technician, but the five days I spent as the only technician on the island were the busiest of my career," says Lake. "The students screened patients all day, every day, and we barely put a dent in the population needing dental treatment. I feel personally and professionally proud of the good work we did, and of how the students pulled together to handle the challenges. The patients were beaming with gratitude—many asking for hugs and photos before leaving the clinic."
For more information on the LDS Student Dental Association or to make a donation to the association's Humanitarian Foundation, visit www.AcademyofLDSDentists.com.