e-mail Print Share

Dentists invited to set sail for humanitarian mission work

December 07, 2015

By Michelle Manchir

Serving abroad: The dental team sits aboard the USNS Mercy during its trip in August to the Philippines. Seated are members from the U.S. Navy; University of California, San Diego Pre-Dental Society Non-Governmental Organization; LDS (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Charities; and partner nations of Australia and Japan. Dr. Carol Gomez Summerhays, ADA president, is seated in the center.
San Diego — Dentists and other dental team members are invited to climb aboard a U.S. Navy ship in 2016 to assist on humanitarian missions overseas.

Planning is underway for Pacific Partnership 2016, a deployment of sailors, marines and civilian mariners, including dentists and other health care providers and engineers. This mission will provide medical, dental, veterinary and engineering assistance to nations of the Pacific with a group of international volunteers.

In 2015, the program completed two missions:  the USNS Mercy hospital ship, which completed a nearly five-month deployment to Fiji, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines and Vietnam; and the USNS Millinocket, which carried a medical task force of 32 Army health care experts, including a dental team. The Millinocket visited five countries including the Solomon Islands, the Philippines, Vietnam, the Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of Kiribati.

The Pacific Partnership effort began as a response to the 2004 tsunami that devastated parts of Southeast Asia and killed hundreds of thousands of people. Since then, 10 missions have provided medical care to about 270,000 patients and veterinary services to more than 38,000 animals, according to the U.S. Navy.

The civilian volunteers on the USNS Mercy included ADA President Carol Summerhays (then-president-elect), and a group of University of California San Diego Pre-Dental Society Non-Governmental Organization members.

"These are incredible humanitarian and diplomatic missions that the Navy allows civilians to participate in," said Dr. Irvin Silverstein, director of the UCSD Pre-Dental Society nongovernmental group, which despite its name, supplies civilian volunteers in all health care- and engineering-related fields. "Not only does it change the lives of people in the host nation, but it changes the lives of our volunteers as well."  

International service: U.S. Army Col. Christensen Hsu, an oral surgeon, examines a patient during a Pacific Partnership event at the Betio Hospital in Tarawa, Kiribati in June.
While the essential mission of the ships is to "conduct subject matter expert exchanges to improve collective disaster response" in the countries visited, according to the U.S. Navy, the volunteers provide a wide array of much-needed services to civilians.

For example, USNS Mercy medical and dental personnel provided direct care to more than 20,000 patients, including 700 surgeries on board and 3,800 dental patients, according to Navy officials.  The USNS Millinocket, meanwhile, treated more than 10,000 patients, including 2,000 dental patients, according to Dr. Christensen Hsu, a U.S. Army Colonel and an oral surgeon who served as the Commander of the 62nd Medical Task Force on the USNS Millinocket.

For many of the patients, it provides a rare opportunity to receive health care.

Gregory Marchese, a civilian volunteer dental assistant and leader at the University of California San Diego who participated in the USNS Mercy trip, recalled witnessing the overwhelming joy of a patient who received dental prosthetics.

"He made an incredible amount of effort to get ahold through email to thank us after the treatment," said Mr. Marchese. "You could feel in the email the treatment was life-changing."

All aboard: The USNS Mercy visited four countries in its nearly five-month deployment.
The Mercy ship features a four-chair dental clinic with a laboratory and X-ray capability for panorex and periapical films. There are an additional two chairs that can be used for sedation cases, according to Dr. Silverstein. When the ship makes stops ashore, its dental division sets up two or three sites at which volunteers screen patients and do "simple treatment," Dr. Silverstein said, adding that extensive cases are referred to the dental department on the ship.

Dr. Summerhays participated in the mission aboard the USNS Mercy during its stop in the Philippines, Dr. Silverstein said. Paying her own way, Dr. Summerhays was involved in community health fairs and also provided oral hygiene education, while also meeting with local Filipino dentists and health care providers.

"The Filipino people were overwhelmed that the president-elect of the American Dental Association … was visiting them, and they felt very at ease with her," said the commanding officer of the USNS Mercy medical treatment facility, Capt. Melanie Merrick, M.D.

The dental team aboard the USNS Millinocket collaborated with the host nation dentists to provide dental services to citizens while simultaneously exchanging professional knowledge, said Dr. Hsu.

"We wanted to end the mission knowing that we made a lasting impact," said Dr. Hsu. "We built relationships to gain their trust and shared our best practices."

Details have not yet been released about the 2016 Pacific Partnership missions. Dentists and all members of the dental team — as well as most others in health care and engineering fields — are invited to apply to volunteer, said Dr. Silverstein. For more information, contact missionsteam@UCSDPDS.org or Dr. Silverstein, at dsilverstein22@cox.net. Civilian volunteer spots are limited.

Information about other international volunteer opportunities for dental professionals can be found on the ADA Foundation's International Volunteer website, internationalvolunteer.ADA.org.