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UNLV dental students spark humanitarian trip to Bolivia

December 04, 2017

By David Burger

Photo of UNLV dental student Jorge Quiroz teaching students in a classroom
Inspiring: UNLV dental student Jorge Quiroz, a native of Bolivia, teaches students in a classroom in Saavedra, Bolivia, about teeth, caries and proper oral hygiene. He was a member of an August dental humanitarian mission led by the university's chapter of the Hispanic Student Dental Association.
Saavedra, Bolivia — A 13-year-old girl came into the dental clinic and reluctantly sat down in the operatory. She was embarrassed to even open her mouth and show what her teeth looked like.

"We were not sure she would even allow us to work on her," said Dr. Davin Faulkner, assistant professor in residence at the School of Dental Medicine at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.  

"Finally, she opened her mouth and we saw her teeth were badly stained and mottled," Dr. Faulkner said. After receiving treatment all day, the girl was still hesitant to show her teeth. "She was given a mirror and for the first time all day she smiled. She could not believe they were her teeth. The rest of the time we were there you could see the difference it made in the girl's confidence. She was no longer embarrassed to smile and open up to the people around her."

That remembrance was just one of many made in August during a humanitarian mission to Bolivia by dental students and faculty from UNLV.

The Hispanic Student Dental Association at the university planned and organized the trip, and it was so successful that the association plans a similar trip to Peru in 2018.

Hispanic Student Dental Association members Jorge Quiroz, from Bolivia, and Alessandro Retis, from Peru, provided the HSDA with contacts at dental schools and government officials in their respective countries. The dental school contacts identified treatment needs they could not meet without help, Dr. Faulkner said.

"One of the reasons I chose dentistry as a profession was because of the vast opportunities for humanitarian dental missions," said Mr. Retis, president of the Hispanic Student Dental Association and member of the Class of 2019. "Having been born in Peru, I've always wanted to one day go back and provide dental care to underserved Peruvian communities. When I was accepted into the UNLV School of Dental Medicine, I reached out to the HSDA to get involved. I found out that the chapter had not been very active in quite some time. The previous president, Jorge Quiroz, had begun organizing a dental mission to Bolivia. I expressed my desire to help make this mission happen."   

Dr. Faulkner said that UNIFRANZ University, a private university in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia, identified the population of Saavedra as suffering from severe fluorosis. "Students learned that there are rural areas in Bolivia where the ground water has a high amount of fluoride," he said. "The people who rely on this ground water for drinking and cooking food develop severe fluorosis, which stains and mottles their teeth. Those with severe fluorosis tend to be very shy and try to hide their teeth when speaking and do not like to smile. It has a profound effect on their lives."

Photo of dental students acting out a play
Illustrating dentistry: Dental students from the UNLV Hispanic Student Dental Association act out a play for schoolchildren in Saavedra, Bolivia, during an August humanitarian mission. The play featured "a tale of an epic battle between teeth and bacteria describing the caries process," said Dr. Davin Faulkner, assistant professor in residence at the School of Medicine at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
"We learned the etiology of fluorosis and were able to see firsthand the esthetic impact and emotional stress it can have on people," Mr. Retis said. "The most impactful outcome of this humanitarian trip was the sense of empathy we were able to develop for these patients having spent three days with them. We saw very self-conscious individuals unable to fully express themselves."

Mr. Retis continued: "We often are quick to judge our patients based on their dental condition, but visiting the town of Saavedra allowed us to understand the reason behind their current dental condition and develop more compassion. As dental students we don't get much exposure to esthetic cases and learning how to place direct composite veneers is a skill we now truly value."

The students, overseen by the faculty, treated about 40 patients over three days at the dental school at UNIFRANZ University. All but two were teenagers, and about 35 of those patients received between four and 14 direct composite veneers each to restore their teeth to address the damage caused by severe fluorosis,

"They were no longer afraid to smile and show off their beautiful teeth," Dr. Faulkner said.

Dr. Faulkner said that the dental students gained a lot from the trip to Bolivia. "These are service opportunities where the students learn to give back to those around them," he said. "They get to learn what life is like outside of the U.S. They learn of the culture in these countries. They learn how dentistry is different in other countries. They experience what true poverty is and develop more compassion because of it. They have the opportunity to learn to communicate better in Spanish. They gain additional experience in performing dentistry. With the Bolivia trip the students gained firsthand experience with severe fluorosis and restoring a mouth with direct composite veneers. These are things the students normally get very little exposure to in dental school."

The dental students only performed procedures they would be allowed to in the U.S. and were properly supervised by licensed dentists including but not limited to Dr. Faulkner.

"I hope students recognize that there is always a large need out there and to be sensitive to that fact," Dr. Faulkner said. "I hope they gain perspective of the various circumstances in which people live. I hope they appreciate their own circumstances and culture a little more and understand better the diverse world around them."

Mr. Retis and Mr. Quiroz agreed that the trip was transformative.

"Students and faculty had a wonderful time in Bolivia," Mr. Quiroz said. "We all had the chance to experience the power of good dentistry in people's lives. We also were able to learn how other dental schools operate in South America and forged friendships with them. To experience the power of dentistry to change a life was priceless. I feel that the students that went to this mission trip learned more about the Hispanic culture and can better relate their Hispanic patients in the U.S."

"There are places where people truly don't have anything," Mr. Retis said. "Populations where people suffer from circumstances out of their control and whose quality of life could greatly improve with a simple dental procedure. Being the provider of that change and experiencing it firsthand will entirely change your appreciation for the field of dentistry."

Mr. Quiroz said that he and others plan to return to Bolivia. "The mission trip to Bolivia was not a one-time deal," he said. "UNLV has a covenant with UNIFRANZ for this mission to be a recurring event where we can treat the population suffering from fluorosis in years to come."

For more information on international volunteer opportunities, visit the ADA Foundation's International Volunteer website,