By Jacqueline St. Joan (MEngl’97)
Last fall I flew to Cambodia to embark on 10 days of tourism with my Denver friend Laurie Mathews (EPOBio’75). Laurie is executive director of Colorado-based Global Dental Relief, which was operating a week-long dental clinic in Cambodia. I was eager for her to finish up so we could travel, but I agreed to attend the last day of the clinic as her unofficial photographer. Then on the bus to the clinic, I discovered other CU alums also on board: Marc Carpenter, a dental graduate from CU Anschutz, and Barbara Keller, a doctoral graduate from Anschutz. Hours later, when we re-boarded the bus to return from the Village to Siem Reap, I knew I would write about the experiences of that day. The inspiring, remarkable people doing their ordinary work had made this tiny corner of the world just a little better.
At 7:30 a.m. already the air is warm, but there is a slight breeze and a cloud-filled sky with promising patches of blue. We take a 20-minute drive from the glamorous Shinta Mani Resort in Siem Reap to Kompheim Village Community School that has been transformed into a hygienic dental clinic. We drive from the city into a world of fresh yellow-green rice fields, long-legged egrets and white cows. Several women with orange plastic buckets poke a muddy, drained pond with their sticks, searching for fish. Across the road behind a brick-walled compound with a wooden house on stilts, a father squats, spooning noodles from a bowl into his mouth. A little boy stands next to him, watching every bite.
Soon the other volunteers arrive — skilled, big-hearted, open-minded people — Ukrainian, African-American, Vietnamese-American, Canadian, a woman from Mumbai, a red-head teenager from Holland, Cambodian locals, a Dutch couple clearly in love, a retired nurse from Vail and a few other Americans.
The school is a cheerful sight. Banana trees shelter a red hibiscus that matches the new red plastic chairs lining the wall outside the clinic door where children wait their turns. They are wearing white button-down shirts and dark blue skirts or shorts. Each has a one-page dental record clipped around the neck like a bib. Inside, a room with eight windows and 12 electric fans has been converted to seven workstations. The walls are decorated with white paper plates drawn by children who have made them into clocks. The clinic is designed to be a child’s place.
Bic Aki, a retired dentist from Oklahoma, presses the palms of her hands together in the traditional Cambodian greeting, as she smiles when each volunteer enters, literally singing out, “Welcome Home.” Then she escorts each child to a reclining chair. It is time for the clinic to begin, and I start taking photographs.
Then Laurie tells me that today several volunteers are sick and unable to work, so she has assigned me a job keeping records. It will be my job to keep careful track of those dental records around the children’s necks.
At the station nearest the door is a 10-year old patient facing down a very long needle. I hear a lay volunteer, one who is neither a dentist nor a hygienist, count down from 10 in Khmer, the local language, while the dentist injects anesthetic into the girl’s mouth.
“Counting down is all we know how to do in Khmer,” Laurie explains. “In Vietnam, we sing ‘Happy Birthday.’ Anything to let the child know that the pain will end when the song ends.” The girl opens her mouth again, and now she’s getting another injection in her check. Then the volunteers lead her to a chair next to a little boy, where she waits with a few others for the anesthesia to take effect.
The day grows warmer, and child after child is examined and treated — a filling here, an extraction there. Old rock tunes sing out from the ‘60s in the clinic’s background: When darkness comes and pain is all around, like a bridge over troubled water, I will lay me down.
Across from my table by the door is a row of four small chairs that Laurie calls “the extraction bench.” It is where the children sit to recover after their teeth are pulled. I want to take the little boy with the big tears and rock him in my arms, but instead I give him a lion sticker and that seems to please him.
At the doorway children from one of about six schools participating are peeking in. A local community organizer traveled to the schools in advance to encourage them to send children to the dental clinic.
One little boy is especially scared and crying loudly. It is difficult to tell how much of his distress is physical pain and how much is fear. The noise increases tension in the room, but the professionals keep to their tasks. We worry that the boy’s screams will frighten the waiting children.
“This is when you need a clown,” I say to Laurie. She closes the door and turns up the music to protect the waiting children.
At lunch, we sit in a circle on the floor, passing plates of pasta and vegetables, mango, banana and dragon fruit. On the playground, teenage boys play volleyball with Marc Carpenter. The Dutch teenager tells me she is taking six months to travel and volunteer with other non-governmental organizations to help in the world.
Soon mid-afternoon fatigue sets in. We are getting tired and the physical operation seems fatigued too. The electricity fails and the lights and fans go off.
I am dripping sweat onto the dental records, a bird cries out, and suddenly the generator charges up and the drills, fans and lights are rolling again. In the corner children are laughing, poking each other, waiting for their turn for drilling and filling. A fresh batch of older children arrives. Their dental problems have gone untreated much longer and are more serious.
“Here, have an elephant sticker,” I say.
By four o’clock the last patients are being served. I am still at my desk, transferring data and counting up patients: by age, by sex, by school, by which tooth extracted, by which tooth filled, by how many sides, by how many children had PT — perfect teeth.
The last child to lie down in Marc’s dental chair holds her own hands as if in prayer. She is so small that they have to check her age — how could she be 8? Though he understands not a word of Khmer, Marc leans in to listen to her.
“Let’s hope she has perfect teeth,” says Marc.
Soon a cheer goes up around the room when the exam is over and the dentist happily pronounces PT. I add her statistic to my collection of data.
The next morning, while the staff is packing up the clinic and moving equipment and records into storage, I asked Barbara and Marc what brought them to volunteer with Cambodia and Global Dental Relief.
Barbara is a lay volunteer. Last year she retired as a high-level executive health care consultant at Novia Strategies and moved to Vail. With her CU doctorate, Barbara has been an administrator as well as a floor nurse at several Denver hospitals. This is her first experience with Global Dental Relief.
Marc is a recently retired Westminster dentist who lives in Denver. He’s never really traveled outside of the U.S. before and now he plans to do more. When I ask him about his decision to volunteer, Marc’s light eyes brighten in response.
“I like travel with a purpose,” he says. He can’t recall exactly how he heard about GDR, but he decided at age 62 to leave his comfort zone and sign up. He has no regrets and will likely do it again.
The inspiring voices of compassion that I heard in Cambodia belonged to Global Dental Relief’s volunteers and staff, like these CU alums. By the time one day in the clinic is over, the change to being a mere tourist seems a let-down, a distraction from real life in the real world.
Consider joining Global Dental Relief as a volunteer. To view trip schedules and itineraries, visit www.globaldentalrelief.org , call (303) 858-8857 or email email@example.com for more information.
Jacqueline St. Joan(MEngl’97) writes fiction, nonfiction and poetry. My Sisters Made of Light, her first novel, was a finalist for the 2011 Colorado Book Award in Literary Fiction. She is coeditor of Beyond Portia: Women, Law, and Literature in the United States. She has worked as a lawyer, judge and law professor. She lives in Denver where she serves as Ziggies Poet of the Year.
For more on Global Dental Relief, read the Coloradan magazine story “Brushing with Destiny.”