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School's Madagascar mission earns Zwemer Award

May 20, 2013

By Jean Williams, ADA News staff

International teacher: Haley Zamer, a second-year dental student, uses a typodont to instruct village children on proper brushing techniques.
Stony Brook, N.Y.—Dental student Jennifer Lonnen has fond memories of playing and dancing with village children in Madagascar last summer when she traveled there with faculty and cohorts from Stony Brook University School of Dental Medicine.

“One of my favorite parts was interacting with them,” she said. “We played a lot of games with them, most of which involved dancing. They played with rocks a lot. We tried to establish friendship. Many of the kids were nervous about interacting with us at first. It was just very, very interesting.”

But the trip was far from just fun and games, as Ms. Lonnen was part of a team of 11 dental students and four Stony Brook faculty members who traveled to the island nation to focus on healing—providing access to care to hundreds in remote villages.

The American Dental Association Foundation awarded its first annual Dr. Thomas J. Zwemer Award to the Stony Brook project. The Zwemer Award recognizes and encourages dental student programs serving underserved populations outside of the United States. The award is a companion to the ADA Foundation's Bud Tarrson Award, which recognizes outstanding dental student-organized volunteer projects in the United States. Both awards contribute $5,000 in support of the students' efforts.

Stony Brook dental students and faculty have traveled to Madagascar since 2005 to support the oral health of underserved communities through dental treatment and nutritional counseling. The Madagascar trip is just one of the international missions that the dental school sponsors.

“Stony Brook School of Dental Medicine sends students on outreach volunteer missions four times a year,” said Dr. Laurence Wynn, an SBU clinical associate professor and project adviser. “We send a team for two weeks to Chile in South America; a team to South Dakota for two weeks to treat Native Americans on their reservation two times a year; a team down to treat the underserved population in Appalachia with Remote Area Medical; and there is the four-week trip to Madagascar.”

Dr. Wynn will accompany nine third-year and two first-year dental students on the next mission to Madagascar this summer. The Zwemer Award will help fund that trip, he said”The funds from this award will sponsor a student to allow him or her to experience this incredible adventure,” he said. “The cost per student is about $5,000.”

As a first-year dental student, Ms. Lonnen was one of the key students leaders who made the trip in 2012, concentrating their mission in remote villages near the seaport city Mahajanga.

“Coming from a small school—Stony Brook only has 40 students per class—we know each other very, very well,” Ms. Lonnen said. “The level of camaraderie that we had during the trip was astounding. We spent all day together. We worked really well together and just enjoyed each other's company. We got to share experiences over dinner every night, which was really nice.

“For me as a first year, it was great to be able to look up to the third- and fourth-year students at the time and hear them out about school and how they thought this trip would impact their clinical skills going back home. It was very inspiring. They felt it would enhance their education.”

Under close faculty supervision, dental students typically treat about 500 patients and perform more than 2,200 procedures, including extractions, restorations and fluoride treatments, according to the school's Zwemer Award application. Dr. Wynn anticipates that on the summer trip, the team will treat around 700 patients.

“This trip provides students the opportunity to experience another culture, improve their speed and clinical skills while living and working under a very difficult environment,” Dr. Wynn said. “The students have the opportunity to treat the effects of pathology that they may not experience ever here in the U.S. It is an absolute joy to see the skills of the students improve during the mission.”

Children received priority placement for treatment, Ms. Lonnen recalled. “Any children who would come, as long as they had a parent with them, we'd put them at the front of the line and they would be seen immediately,” she said.

Adults received treatment, too, on a “first-come, first-served basis,” Ms. Lonnen said. She saw, as Dr. Wynn noted, cases that are considered atypical back at home.

“Most of the cases were dire needs,” Ms. Lonnen said. “It was amazing to see things that you don't usually come by in the United States—to see what infection can progress to.”

Dr. Richard Simms, a former ADAF board member and past ADA vice president, created and endowed the award in 2012 in honor of his mentor and longtime friend, Dr. Zwemer. Dr. Simms practices in Harbor City, Calif.

“I am extremely pleased with the outcome of the first year's selection and so is Dr. Zwemer,” Dr. Simms said in a letter to Gene Wurth, ADA Foundation executive director. “I always wanted to express my appreciation to Tom Zwemer for accepting me for the 1961 class and for my excellent orthodontic training. He was/is a wonderful man and teacher. The Foundation gave me unexpectedly the perfect means of saying thank you, as in many instances the words thank you don't express the depth of one's true feelings.”

For more information about the Zwemer Award or other ADA Foundation programs, visit the website.

Dr. Wynn is optimistic that Stony Brook students earning the Zwemer Award will prove to be seminal. “Hopefully receiving this award will stimulate other schools to do volunteer outreach missions as well,” he said. “The things we do for ourselves die with us; the things we do for others live on.”