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Operation Smile Vietnam

Dental school volunteer trip turns into long-term mission

Norfolk, Va.—An annual dental mission/education exchange program in Vietnam was born through the vision of two dedicated senior students at the University of Maryland Dental School, Baltimore College of Dental Surgery in 1997.

Student founders Dr. Bill Magee III, son of Operation Smile co-founder and CEO Dr. Bill Magee, and Dr. Daniel Taub, an oral and maxillofacial surgeon in Philadelphia, assembled a team of faculty and students from U of M in January 1997 for the inaugural mission trip through Operation Smile, the Norfolk-based worldwide children's medical charity that treats children born with cleft lips, cleft palates and other facial deformities.

Dr. Taub and Dr. Magee had spent a year and a half putting the program together, raising funds, taking a fact-finding trip and setting up the contacts they would need to establish a sustainable program. After 15 Operation Smile mission trips, Dr. Taub is still one of the team leaders for the Vietnam program.

This past March, more than 60 volunteers provided dental health education and/or treatment to more than 4,500 children in Hanoi and Hue, as well as reaching remote villages via five fully equipped dental vans. The dental care and education phase of the mission is squeezed into 4-1/2 days of hard work for volunteers.

Each child received a toothbrush, toothpaste and education on ideal oral hygiene, diet and nutrition. These children also received dental screenings, toothbrush prophies as well as a fluoride rinse. During the screening, the children with the most urgent needs were identified and treated. The team performed more than 2,600 extractions, 1,800 restorations and 30 root canals.

The mission also included hosting an education symposium attended by more than 100 oral health care professionals.

"We know going to Vietnam once a year to treat children isn't going to cure caries, but we go to the same sites, where we can build relationships and exchange information with our Vietnamese counterparts and follow up with them after we leave," said Dr. Taub. "The symposium covers topics requested by the dental school there. We gear the education to their needs and interests. This year we covered a variety of topics, from TMD management and oral manifestation and treatment of systemic disease to orthodontic space maintenance, implants, endodontic challenges and the role of the hygienist in diagnosing oral cancer."

After graduation, said Dr. Taub, "we wanted to continue the mission with dental school volunteers, so we came up with the idea to pitch the program at a pizza lunch."

Dr. Michael Gioffre, a Wilmington, Del., general dentist, was one of the dental students who accepted the invitation to have some pizza and watch a slide show during his second year of dental school at U of M.

A team leader and volunteer on the last 12 dental missions to Vietnam, Dr. Gioffre has also participated in four surgical missions with Operation Smile to Bolivia, China and the Philippines.

"The kids are great; amazingly brave and extremely grateful," said Dr. Gioffre. "It gives volunteers like me a chance to practice 'pure' dentistry—the kind we learned in dental school—without the distractions of running a business. And it gives us a chance to provide treatment to a community that otherwise would not have access to this care or an opportunity to receive this education and supplies. I get pretty fired up about it and find myself returning year after year."

Education is key to the mission, he added. "We realize that by educating thousands of children and through the educational symposium, we are having a more profound impact on the children we see in Vietnam than by simply extracting a decayed tooth."

Dr. Taub and Dr. Gioffre were honored by Operation Smile in 2007 with its Volunteer of the Year Award for their dedication to the program, which has now reached more than 20,000 patients since it was launched.

"This is my thing," Dr. Taub said. "It's been a tremendous experience personally and professionally to help kids and train dentists in Vietnam."

For more information, visit the Operation Smile Web site: www.operationsmile.org.

For information about other international dental volunteer opportunities contact the ADA Division of Global Affairs at 1-312-440-2726 or international@ada.org.