We’re finally coming to the end of our time in Freetown. Eye screenings are done, as are all surgeries. And this week brought the dental clinic to a close as well. I joined the dental team on Monday to help with security at the last screening. People understandably get aggravated as we begin to wind down. The need greatly outweighs what we can accomidate in a year. And unlike many of the major surgeries we do, dental work is never-ending.
This screening wasn’t exceptionally large, but you can see just how many people need help when they’re lined up like this. It can be overwhelming to think about. But it provides some awesome opportunities to talk and pray with people as they wait to be seen by the dental team. Unfortunately we can only take the worst cases from the crowd, and there are some pretty rough ones.
My friend Gini runs the show and has been after me to come out and visit all year. Of course, I waited until the very last possible opportunity and came on their last day of operation on Thursday. I knew I should have come out sooner, and I was right. Why I don’t listen to myself when I’m right could be the subject of another blog post altogether.
You’d rarely think of dental work as life-saving back home, but here it really is. People come in with the most advanced infections many of our dentists have ever seen. I asked Ali (the English dentist I shadowed on Thursday) how things compare, if he sees as much infection in the UK as he does here. He said that he sees more puss in a day here than in a year at home. And it’s easy to believe after following him around for a morning.
For the most part we just pulled teeth. There’s not much more you can do for 200 people per week. But as Ali put it, we’re replacing rotton, painful, non-functioning teeth with non-functioning gums.
I got to assist on most of his work for the morning, and learned a lot. I’ve never run suction for oral surgery before, nor had I aided in suturing or pulled a tooth (pictured below – I bet you can’t guess which one I pulled). One lady came in who I got no photos of because I was quite literally too busy helping to do so. She had a massive infection in her jaw that had caused it to clamp nearly shut. You should be able to get three fingers in your mouth when your jaw is healthy. She couldn’t get one in.
It took about 20 minutes with two different wedges to loosen the muscles up enough to open her mouth. As Ali went in to see if he could release some pressure and get the puss to drain, we were told she was 6 months pregnant. From the perspective of my limited medical experience it was fascinating to watch and help as he pulled teeth and worked his way down into the jaw bone to seek out the infection. From a personal standpoint it was really, really heavy to watch as we essentially found ourselves unable to effectively help her as we wanted. The swelling never drained, and Ali was forced to leave tubes in her jaw to try and drain it over the coming week. Thankfully there’s a clinic just outside of town she can follow up with.
The danger is that the infection will get into her bloodstream, and things will go south quickly from there. What I think may be the most difficult part is when we admit people, can help them, and in the end they refuse our help. That happened with one lady who stopped Ali mid-pull. And it’s a bit shaking to think she has a chance of ending up like the other lady with the massive infection. But it’s her right to refuse the help.
What impacted me the most from the day was simply being with the patients as they underwent their procedures. It was an incredible educational experience following a dentist like Ali around and listening to him explain every little thing to me. But holding the hands of patients who had never been to a dentist before and trying to comfort them in the midst of it all stuck with me the most. It’s an incredible amount of trust that’s place in our dental team, and an overwhelming need that the they face. But it’s the individual that matters, and the fact that we can affect some change really does mean something at the end of the day.